Two years ago this month, in the midst of seemingly productive negotiations on immigration reform, President Trump famously asked why the U.S. was taking immigrants from “shithole countries.” Predictably, the comments triggered outrage, shut down fruitful negotiations, and created an outpouring of support for the often-maligned Diversity Visa program (DVP).
The U.S. has four major streams of immigration: employment, family, humanitarian, and diversity. The DVP, historically, is the smallest and least known. On the second anniversary of President Trump’s ‘shithole countries’ comments about diversity visa immigrants, it’s appropriate to reexamine the DVP as an important component of the U.S. immigration system that contributes to economic growth, dynamism, diplomacy, and future flows of U.S. migration.
The DVP offers 50,000 visas each year to citizens of countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. To be eligible, petitioners must have a high-school education or equivalent or two years of work experience in a job that generally requires a bachelor’s degree. Any spouses or minor children of applicants may enter as dependents. The visas are distributed via a computerized lottery within quotas set for each region.
President Trump has elevated the visibility of the DVP as abolishing the program is a central part of his immigration priorities. But the president — and likely many of his supporters — fundamentally misunderstand the structure and benefits of the DVP.
Critics on the right repeat this question: what is the value of offering 50,000 visas a year to individuals without ties to the U.S., from countries that don’t normally send many immigrants here, without explicitly selecting for skill? My colleague Jeremy L. Neufeld and others (Carly Goodman, David Bier, and Julia Gelatt come to mind) have written persuasively on this, but misconceptions surrounding the Diversity Visa remain manifold.
There are three core reasons why the Diversity Visa Program benefits the U.S and Trump remains widely wrong about his ‘shithole countries’ comment.
#1: The Diversity Visa program helps advance U.S. interests abroad
The DVP is an effective and cheap way for the U.S. to win the goodwill of countries and individuals around the world, despite amounting to just 5 percent of total legal immigration visas each year. The DVP serves domestic and overseas interests by fostering relationships between the U.S. and other countries — often those with limited economic and diplomatic engagement with the U.S.
The 50,000 diversity immigrants annually become ambassadors for the U.S. who engender goodwill overseas through family, friends, and business connections and can directly undermine propaganda from rival governments, terrorist organizations, hate groups, and other adversaries.
In a 2011 House Judiciary Committee hearing, Johnny Young, who served as U.S. ambassador to multiple countries under presidents of both parties, testified that “foreign policy interests are served by the Diversity Visa program.” Young argued that the DVP can be placed in a larger context of initiatives undertaken by the U.S. to “help shape the minds and hearts … to regard the United States and the democracy it enjoys as a beacon of hope and opportunity, and therefore a leader, in the world.”
Effective diplomacy isn’t simply avoiding enemies or conflict; it’s also cultivating friendship and goodwill. The DVP provides a pathway for a new stream of immigration that aids in the creation of pro-U.S. narratives in countries that don’t send many immigrants to the U.S. This includes many of the strategically valuable countries involved in the diversity visa program that Trump called ‘shithole countries’.
Historian Carly Goodman writes, “The standing of the United States in the world has an effect on our economic and security interests, and the visa lottery is an easy way to strengthen peaceful ties between our country and others.”
Machmud Makhmudov, a Rhodes scholar and DVP immigrant from Uzbekistan, wrote in the New York Times:
The Diversity Visa program should also be preserved because, for many people across the globe, a relative or a neighbor who has managed to immigrate to the United States is their only authentic connection with the country. This was certainly true for my family. At a time when groups ranging from state-sponsored media to terrorist organizations denounce the United States as “the Great Satan,” America can’t afford to turn its back on an opportunity to portray itself as an open, tolerant and diverse nation.
Goodman also notes:
Individual visa recipients, their families and their communities have benefited from the lottery, particularly through remittances sent back by immigrants, contributing to prosperity and stability in their home countries. One economist who has studied the impact of the lottery on Ethiopia found that having a family member win the lottery had a significant positive effect on the family’s standard of living.
#2: The Diversity Visa Program Promotes Economic Growth
Critics alleged that the Diversity Visa fails to justify its allocation of 50,000 annual visas because it does not select for any merit or skills, suggesting that one could expect low educational requirements to produce a stream of DV immigrants who would fail to compete in the modern U.S. economy.
In original research published last year by the Niskanen Center, we found that diversity immigrants have higher skill levels than other immigrants and native-born Americans, and higher educational attainment. Author Jeremy L. Neufeld found that the amount of Diversity Visas awarded to immigrants from a country for a given year is positively correlated with the number of workers from that country awarded the H-1B high-skill visa in the next year. His research supports the claim from Patrick Kennedy, writing in the Stanford Law Review, who argued, “The DV program thus picks a random sample of trail-blazing immigrants who create the paths future high-skilled immigrants follow.”
Finally, Neufeld found immigrants through the DVP speak better English and are less likely to be unemployed than other immigrants.
These two seemingly conflicting realities are reconciled by the fact that DVP participation requires that one have the means to pay application fees, travel to a U.S. embassy or consulate, pass background checks, and buy plane tickets to the U.S. Neufeld notes, “In some countries, the costs can quickly add up to more than what most people in that country make in a year. The result of this is that while it may be a lottery, the Diversity Visa program implicitly selects for skills.”
Neufeld finds that abolishing the DVP would choke off a pathway for skilled permanent immigrants and ultimately narrow the pool of high-skilled temporary workers, too. He concludes, “Diversity-based immigration should thus be considered an important component of an immigration system designed to foster economic growth.”
Neufeld adds, “The kind of people who use the program are willing to work hard, and by the very nature of immigrating through the program, are natural risk-takers who are more likely to be entrepreneurs than even native-born Americans.”
Another study finds that the program selects for “Africans in well-paying jobs, who are likely to be professionals rather than mere high school graduates.”
The research is clear: the DVP serves as an anchor for future merit-based immigration. It can be viewed as a skills diversification visa — ensuring a wider pool of applicants from more countries and extending the reach of the U.S. economy.
Moreover, as Neufeld explains, diversity contributes to economic growth. He writes that the economic literature finds diversity has positive effects “on employment, on employment growth, on innovation at the regional level, on innovation at the individual level, on innovation diffusion, on historic economic growth, and on modern economic growth. All of these effects from diversity are in addition to the positive effects associated with immigration broadly.”
Finally, the DVP captures value unknown to the U.S.
U.S. immigration is based primarily on established relationships an immigrant has with either an employer or a family member. Without those options, the choices are coming to the U.S. through the Diversity Visa or the refugee resettlement program. But not having any connection to the U.S. does not mean one isn’t educated, skilled, or valuable: in other words, a merit-based would-be immigrant.
Future immigration flows are crucial to maintain. The DVP sets in motion the high-skilled immigration of tomorrow from countries that lack a robust migration infrastructure currently. The DVP provides an option of last resort to those without connection to the U.S. who want to contribute to the world’s largest economy.
#3: The Diversity Visa creates migration links to Africa — a key 21st century economic and diplomatic actor
From 1995 to 2016, Africa received 39 percent of DVP visas. Scholars at the Migration Policy Institute wrote, “It is not surprising that African immigrants are overrepresented in the diversity program, given that they are underrepresented in the general immigrant population and the program is designed to promote pluralism in immigration flow.”
A fast-growing economy in Africa and its elevation as a larger player in world affairs means African immigration is important to U.S. interests in the 21st century. This century will see the rise in African economic growth as well as rising incomes for hundreds of millions of individual Africans. The U.S. should want to establish connections to African institutions, businesses, governments, civil society actors, etc. Making those bonds more robust takes a lot more than a simple visa program, but the program plays a role.
Curtailing the DVP will cut off a sizable chunk of African immigration and reduce future flows of high-skilled Africans coming to the U.S. Finding ways to recruit skilled African talent is an investment in African markets and diplomacy moving forward.
Hammering the DVP is easy to do. But its role in the larger immigration system is nuanced but nonetheless important. Critics argue it’s the “strangest” part of our immigration system; it’s probably the most misunderstood.
The DVP has made the U.S. immigration system more diverse, balancing immigration flows in which Mexico, China, and India dominate. The DVP shrinks the globe and expands the American way of life to new regions of the world, creating and cultivating crucial relationships for the future. It also plays a unique role in our diplomatic toolkit.
And DVP immigrants are educated and skilled — they won’t all build new businesses, but they will build bridges and links back to their countries of origin. Immigrants from the DVP can leverage global connections and a unique international outlook.
America’s national identity rests in part on a widely shared narrative that the country was built by immigrants who ignored the accidents of their birth to maximize their talents here in the U.S. The DVP is a way for the U.S. to continue articulating that vision and realizing that narrative today, through the media coverage it generates and the lived experiences of DVP immigrants and the people they meet in their communities. This is the inherently American case for the ‘shithole’ diversity visa.
Neufeld has outlined ways to improve the DVP, but Congress seems incapable of passing any immigration reform to modernize our system absent a grand bargain on the entire immigration debate. Without larger reform that appropriately reconsiders future flows, diversity immigration, and skills recruitment, the U.S. should preserve the Diversity Visa program.
The DVP isn’t perfect, but it’s a vital immigration program that deserves more attention and appreciation.