If the powers that be have it their way, a popular programme that has enabled thousands of Africans to migrate to the United States over the past 20 years, the Green Card Lottery, may soon cease to exist. From New York, Leslie Gordon Goffe explains the implications.
The Green Card Lottery is responsible for up to a quarter of Africans who have migrated to the United States. But the lottery has powerful enemies, especially Republican lawmakers in the US Congress, who are determined to see it dismantled and done away with as soon as possible.
Each year, the US government gives out 50,000 special lottery visas to immigrants from countries that are underrepresented in the US population.
Anyone, anywhere – from Tajikistan to Tanzania – can apply for the lottery for free simply by clicking on some buttons and numbers online. The lucky winners are randomly selected through the computer-generated spin of a wheel; if their number comes up, they are granted a Green Card to enter the United States – after clearing medical and criminal history checks.
Ironically, because Africans have long suffered more exclusion, discrimination and denial of entry to the US as a result of racist immigration laws than other races, this system made sure they benefitted more from the spinning wheel, by putting Africans at the front of the queue of the most underrepresented people. Thus each year since its inception in 1995, around 50% of lottery visas, or 22,000 spots, have been allotted to Africans. It is a kind of affirmative action, designed to make up for past discrimination.
In 1980, only around 130,000 Africans were legal residents of the US. Today, around 2 million Africans are permanent residents or citizens of the US, thanks in part to the Green Card Lottery.
Most of the Africans who have benefitted from the lottery – also called the Diversity Immigrant Visa – have generally done well. According to a recent US census, Africans in America are among the best-educated and highest earners.
But it appears the Green Card Lottery has done its job too well for some Republicans. Right-wingers inside and outside the Party are busy cooking up all sorts of crazy conspiracies. With the recent outbreak of Ebola, the conspiracies have gone viral, spreading wild fears that African recipients pose a deadly health risk to American citizens.
For example, Michelle Malkin, author of the book Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces, who is also a popular newspaper columnist (herself of Filipino descent) has been using her writings as a rallying call to ask authorities to halt the visa lottery. In one of her columns which is syndicated nationally, she scaremongered how West African US lottery visa winners were “flying into the country now” and bringing the Ebola virus with them and demanded Africans be “re-screened” for the virus before being allowed into the US with “their shiny new Green Cards…The Diversity Visa lottery program is a public health hazard and a national security risk that leaves our safety to random chance.”
She added: “Pleas to curtail or end the program since the 9/11 attacks have fallen on deaf ears.”
But many liberals believe the lottery has actually done more good than harm in both the American and African societies, too much to be done away with on the whim of disgruntled right- wingers with racist axes to grind.
Obama and a broken system
But Africans in the US – in “Little Ghana” and “Little Senegal” in New York and “Little Ethiopia” in Washington DC – won’t give up the Diversity Immigrant Visa without a fight. Some, like activist Sylvie Bello, head of the Washington DC-based advocacy group the Cameroon American Council, have lobbied and pressed Democrat congressmen not to support Republican efforts to scrap the lottery. Recently, in the hope that President Obama would look out of his White House window, Bello and other lottery campaigners against the dismantling of the visa lottery held up protest placards with a unified message: “Africans Save the DV Lottery”.
“They want to pass a bill that is wonderful for the Irish, wonderful for the Asians and wonderful for the Latinos but not wonderful for the Africans. Any bill that removes the DV Lottery is not wonderful,” she says in protestation.
Bello, and many other advocates of the programme, are concerned that President Obama might not seek to permanently save the Green Card Lottery, before he leaves office. Although last November saw America’s first and only black president declare an executive action to fix America’s broken immigration system, which will grant over four million mostly Mexican undocumented immigrants limited legal status and protection from deportation, and take steps, too, to preserve the Green Card Lottery, at least for now, there are concerns that all this could be un-done with the flip of a switch or sleight of hand in Congressional political battles and horse-trading.
Many Africans, such as Cameroonian Dominic Tamin, are troubled that the DV Lottery looks as though it is on the chopping block, and may not win reprieve, by the time President Obama leaves the White House in just two years’ time. Tamin says the lottery saved his life when his father won a Green Card visa in 1997 and brought his family with him to the US. Over the next 18 years, Tamin attended university in the New York area and became a successful businessman here, too.
“If you are going to make five million Mexicans legal,” Tamin complains, “then what about 20,000 Africans who want their DV Lottery…we know they are looking for ways to stop Africans coming into America.”
Threat to security
Republican opponents of the Green Card Lottery would dismiss this as nonsense. Most of them claim that the lottery gobbles up Green Cards that they would prefer to go to immigrants – mostly European and Asian ones – who work in what’s called STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, instead.
But there are those in power who go even further and hype up the perceived dangers of the system. One such is the Republican congressman, Bob Goodlatte, who introduced an immigration bill that would have seen the elimination of the Green Card Lottery. One of his claims was: “The visa lottery program poses a national security threat.”
His immigration bill became law, but that law did not include a measure for the removal of monies used to operate and fund the lottery programme. Unable to de-fund the lottery, Bob Goodlatte has since employed ugly 9/11 scare tactics to win his argument.
In many debates and media, Goodlatte and other Green Card Lottery opponents are, for example, fond of pointing to the case of lottery recipient Hesham Mohamed Hedayet, who shot and killed two people in a terrorist attack at Los Angeles airport a few years after migrating to the US. It is a troubling example, but hardly typical. But that is not how Goodlatte and his cohorts see it. To them, America is under threat from loopholes in the lottery, he claims, and the US government needs to do something about it quick, and 2015 is likely the year the lottery picks will stop.
But Nigerian-born Republican Dr Yomi Faparusi does not agree with the racist Republican rank and file when it comes to the DV Lottery. Faparusi, who made a failed bid to become a congressman in Tennessee a few years ago, says Republicans just don’t understand the needs of either African immigrants or African-Americans.
“When it comes to the DV Lottery I am with Obama and not with Republicans,” says Faparusi, whose sister won the lottery a few years back. “I want to broaden our support in the black community,” he says, “but this is not how you do it.”
It is not just Republicans who have attempted to pass bills affecting the Green Card Lottery. Who can forget the African-American Democratic congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, who introduced the Save America Comprehensive Immigration Act of 2009. The bill didn’t pass. But had it done so, it would have doubled the number of diversity visas from 50,000 each year to more than 100,000 annually.
One of the ironies of the Green Card Lottery is that it is today identified entirely with Africans, yet when it was created in the 1980s it was designed to aid Irish immigrants.
The lottery programme, which is a congressionally mandated immigration initiative, administered by the Department of State, was the brainchild of Senator Ted Kennedy and other Irish-American congressmen. Kennedy came up with a blueprint for the programme, which he intended (far back in the 1980s) as a temporary measure to grant legal status, principally, to Irish nationals who had overstayed their visitor’s visas but were eager to find a way to remain in the US.
Later, when it became a law, as part of the Immigration Act of 1990, the lottery programme was broadened to grant Green Cards to individuals whose countries of origin were underrepresented in the US population.
And though millions of Americans were by then of Irish ancestry, Senator Kennedy made sure a special allotment of visas was put aside for the Irish, anyway. Today, and for much of its 20-year history, the Green Card Lottery has really been the African Green Card Lottery.
Usually, African countries can expect to get the lion’s share of the visas. However, in the most recent lottery Nigeria was the only African country listed among ineligible nations, because it had sent more than 50,000 migrants to the US in the past five years.
Many now believe that after 20 years, and with all that is being thrown at it by those against it, the Green Card Lottery may be on its last legs. The most recent applicants will find out in May whether they are among the lucky recipients of what could be the last lottery visa.
What a racket
As usual this year, around 100,000 applicants will be notified they have been selected, out of around 15 million applicants, for a visa. This number will be quickly whittled down to 50,000, as applicant after applicant is disqualified because they have a criminal record or because they have a prohibitive medical condition that disqualifies them from migrating to the US.
There is always a lot of noise around the application deadlines in November each year, and the announcement of the winners in May. In some parts of Africa, such as Ghana and Nigeria, some applicants even get together for Green Card Lottery parties as they await the results.
So, what happens if your lottery numbers do not give you a winner? Try again. There’s no limit to the number of times a person can enter the Green Card Lottery. Last year a record 15 million people, which was a 25% increase over the year before, sent in an application, according to the US State Department.
So, could this, its 20th year, see the end of the Green Card Lottery? Past history reveals the lottery has resiliently survived opposition. It’s been counted out before and returned. But this time round, as the first black president is almost on his way out, the daggers are clearly drawn. And the fight against it has very powerful backers; and small “Davids”, such as the Cameroonian immigration advocate Sylvie Bello, are unlikely to bring Goliath down.