The Diversity Visa Lottery

With the talk of immigration reform, there has been a lot of discussion of the diversity visa program. Some reform proposals call for the increase of visas available for graduates with advanced degrees in science and engineering, but at the expense of eliminating the diversity visa program. So, what is the diversity visa program?

The idea behind the program is to make visas available to people from areas of the world where few people have immigrated to the United States. Currently 50,000 visas are available on an annual basis. If a country has sent 50,000 or more immigrants to the United States in the last five years, then those born in those countries may not receive a diversity visa. Based on this criteria, ineligible countries include Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, the Peoples Republic of China, El Salvador, Haiti and South Korea. In fact the only country in North America where natives are eligible to receive a diversity visa is the Bahamas.

The diversity visas are distributed by region, with the regions sending the fewest immigrants to the United States in the previous five years receive the most visas. The regions which currently receive the most visas under the program are Africa and Europe. No one country can receive more than seven percent, or 3,500, of the visas available for that year. The visas are distributed at random.

To apply, a person enters the lottery online during the registration period. Winning the lottery does not guarantee that the applicant will receive the visa. Rather, the applicant must meet certain additional requirements. The applicant must have graduated high school, or have spent two out of the last five years in an occupation requiring at least two years’ training or experience.

A person does not need to meet the eligibility requirements in order to apply online. This has led to a number of disappointed lottery winners. That is, a person wins the lottery only to learn that he or she does not have the required education or work experience to receive the visa.

The diversity lottery has been in existence since 1995. Critics have argued that the system is unfair, as there are thousands of aliens present in the United States on temporary work visas who have to wait years for an immigrant visa to become available, while diversity visa winners receive their permanent residency based solely on chance. Critics have also argued that the program is susceptible to fraud, and that through the lottery terrorists could enter the country.

The House of Representatives has voted to eliminate the diversity visa program in 2005. However, the bill was never passed in the Senate. In September of 2012, another bill was voted on in the House which would have eliminated the diversity visa program in order to increase the number of immigrant visas for graduates with advanced degrees in science and engineering. While the bill received a majority vote, it was brought up on the suspension calendar, it required a two-thirds majority to pass.

William J. Kovatch, Jr. is an immigration lawyer practicing in Northern Virginia and the metropolitan Washington, DC area. To learn more about his practice, visit his blog: http://www.kovatchimmigrationlaw.blogspot.com.