In preparation for the 2024 elections, hopeful GOP candidates are busy fine-tuning and promoting their immigration policy strategies. While there are some differences in each candidate’s immigration approach, eliminating lottery-based routes for legal immigration–including the Diversity Immigrant Visa (DV) program–is nearly unanimous.
Also known as the “Green Card Lottery,” the DV program was initially designed to increase legal immigration from Ireland without granting the Irish special treatment. Since 1995, the U.S. has offered 50,000 immigrant visas per year to eligible applicants from countries with low immigration rates to the U.S.( countries with fewer than 50,000 natives admitted to the U.S. over the past five years). Now, most visas go to applicants from Morocco, Kenya, Nepal, and Poland, which have relatively small immigrant populations in the U.S. Over 11 million people submit a DV application annually. Still, the DV accounts for just 4 to 5 percent of legal immigration to the U.S.
One underlying misunderstanding fueling criticism of the DV is that merit-based systems would bring more skilled migrants than the DV and that the U.S. should prioritize these kinds of legal immigration programs. Former President Donald Trump vehemently opposed the DV, suggesting that its applicants are unskilled and don’t contribute to the American economy. But closer scrutiny demonstrates how incorrect these assumptions are, rendering it worthwhile to unpack this and other myths surrounding the DV.
Myth #1: Diversity “lottery” recipients do not significantly contribute to the U.S. economy.
Fact: Research has shown that growing the diversity and size of the immigrant population in the U.S. increases workers’ innovation and productivity, strengthens the American middle class, increases the number of jobs, and grows the U.S. economy. In part, DV recipients drive these significant benefits and thus contribute to growing the U.S. economy. Moreover, these positive impacts are felt across socioeconomic groups, with low and high-income earners experiencing economic benefits.
Myth #2: The DV is not merit-based.
Fact: Though minimum DV eligibility requires a high school diploma, the additional two-year work experience requirement indirectly selects those with higher educational attainment.
The median DV immigrant has a bachelor’s degree compared to the median U.S. native with just a high-school diploma. Research from the University of Iowa also showed that diversity visa holders have the highest increase in employment over time. Further, migrants brought to the U.S. through the DV have lower unemployment rates than other immigrants, demonstrating their ability to utilize their education to find work.
Myth #3: DV migrants have lower levels of English fluency.
Fact: Research from the Niskanen Center shows that new DV winners have higher levels of English fluency than new immigrants from other visa categories. Specifically, while new legal immigrants across the board have high rates of English fluency, only 6 percent of new DV immigrants speak English “not at all,” compared to 22 percent of other new, non-DV immigrants.
Myth #4: The DV doesn’t benefit the U.S. globally.
Fact: A significant yet underappreciated benefit of the DV is that it supports American soft power, often in countries where the U.S. has weaker economic and diplomatic relations.
Increasing American soft power, particularly in Africa, can also counter the rising influence of Russia and China by boosting pro-U.S. sentiments. Winners of the DV lottery become intermediaries between the U.S. and their native country and thus strengthen American ideals abroad. This can counter anti-U.S. propaganda by rival governments, terrorist groups, and other adversaries.
Myth #5: Diversity visa recipients are likely to increase domestic crime and terrorism.
Fact: Following a terror attack in 2017 by a Uzbek national who entered the U.S. through the DV program, the DV received increased scrutiny from skeptics concerned about safety.
Research by the Cato Institute has demonstrated that the DV is not an attractive immigration choice for potential terrorists due to arduous application and screening and is thus not an especially weak link in the system. Cato also found that the incarceration rates in past years for immigrants from the 20 countries that sent the greatest number of DV immigrants are lower than for native-born Americans.
Takeaways & Opportunities for DV reform
The realities of the DV demonstrate the substantial advantages it brings to the U.S. economy, foreign relations, and civic life. Still, there are opportunities for reform, like weighting the lottery by skills or introducing a lag before a winner receives their green card. The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project has also suggested keeping the DV and indexing its cap to GDP. These reforms could adjust the DV to increase its political support while preserving its fundamental qualities.