As I write, Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for a battle to transform an American immigration system that has changed little in fifty years. President Trump seems eager to alter both the number of immigrants and the nature of qualifications for immigration. His Democratic opponents call him “racist.” (Democratic extremists call anyone they don’t like “racist,” perhaps because they have exhausted all normal political insults.) The so-called “lottery” door to immigration is attracting special scorn from the president and from other high-ranking Republicans. Many in the general public, not well versed in matters of immigration, listen to the president’s attacks with perplexity or disbelief: a “lottery”? This short essay aims to throw light on the topic with a small number of figures.
In 2016 there were 1,200,000 admissions to permanent residency in the US. That’s the granting of the famous “green card” which gives one full rights to work, to go in and out of the country, but no political rights, no right to vote, and no right to be elected – until now. Permanent residency is not citizenship. This must be obtained later, separately after five or three years (the latter, for spouses of US citizens) in almost all cases. Nearly all legal residents who wish to eventually become American citizens.
“Admission” is a legal-bureaucratic term. Many of those so admitted have already been in the US, some for years, while their case was being processed. The number physically arriving in the US on that year is much larger because it includes tourists, students, and others who are supposed to be visitors staying only for a stated length of time. Immigrants are admitted on the basis of one of five broad categories:
Occupational/business qualification, family relationship to someone already legally in the US. (The latter actually includes two legal-bureaucratic categories. The distinction between the two need not concern us here.) This family-based category accounts for the bulk of legal immigration, 67% of the total in 2016. Refugees (and “asylees”) account for another large number that is variable from year to year. There is also a category “Others” which gathers a small number of odds and ends admissions otherwise not fitting into another category.
The most interesting basis for admission is the quaintly called “Diversity.” It’s an actual lottery. It’s a lottery without admission fee where one can play as often as one cares to. It contributed 50,000 admissions in 2016, or 4% of the total admitted. The number is so small that it hardly would seem to be worth the attention of policy makers, except perhaps when a lottery winner engages in spectacular criminal acts as happened in New York in the fall of 2017.
Once, in the late 80s, Senator Ted Kennedy discovered that immigration to the US included practically no Irish people. He got angry and, on the spot, devised a remedy that became – through his influence in Congress – the diversity lottery. I can’t guarantee this story is true but it’s plausible and its spirit explains well the existence of this strange anomaly.
The main reason some parts of the globe send few immigrants to the US is that most opportunities to do so are sucked up by the prevalence of immigration based on family status in other areas. It’s the result of a quasi-random starting point combined with chain immigration. Suppose a single young Mexican male manages to move to the US legally (worry not how). Within a couple of years he goes back to Mexico to get married. He brings his wife to the US. It turns out he already had a son in Mexico, from another woman. He brings the son over too. The couple has several children, all US born. Soon, they would like to have built-in babysitters. They bring in both of the wife’s parents and the husband’s surviving mother. So, in this unremarkable story, we go – in the space of less than ten years – from one immigrant from Mexico, to six. After a few more years, any of the foreign born adults may bring one or two more immigrants, including brothers and sisters. The US-born children can also bring in their Mexican uncles, aunts, and cousins, though it would take a long time. There is a natural snowball effect built into the system.
To the extent that Congress wishes to cap the total number of immigrants brought in (excluding refugees), national contingents that happened to be numerous early may monopolize a very large number of available immigration opportunities. This leaves the door almost closed to other nationalities that were not present in large numbers early. The purpose of the lottery is to improve the US immigration chances to people living in areas of the world that have been under-served for a little while. Accordingly, lottery slots are allocated among regions observed to be contributing a small number of immigrants by other means. The drawing occurs individual under-served region to under-served region. Each region corresponds more or less to a continent (distinguishing between South America and North America).
The lottery products are interesting. First, the lottery results in a frequency distribution of admissions by country of origin that would be difficult to predict in general. Second, it would be hard to forecast which countries would end up still undeserved. In 2016, lottery admissions included people from 152 countries. Only six countries passed the (arbitrary) bar of “diversity” lottery of 2,000 immigrants into the US. They were, by order of the magnitude of their immigrant contingent:
- Egypt, Nepal, Iran, Congo (formerly Zaire), Uzbekistan, and Ethiopia.
- Ukraine, with 1,915, almost made the cut.
- In 2016 also, four Uruguayans qualified under the lottery (that’s 4, four units.)
Together, the core western European countries of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Norway, sent a grand total of 1,390 to the US under this qualification. That’s between 2 and 3% of the total diversity lottery winners. Although European countries do send immigrants to the US under other programs, Europe is classified as one of the under-served regions. It also turns out to be under-served by the lottery. In 2016, about one per thousand of the immigrants admitted to the US came from the conventionally defined core western European areas under an admission program intended to correct for under-representation. The Republic of Ireland produced 51 winners. Sen. Kennedy hardly got his way.
Anybody who calls the current American immigration system racist is out of his mind, probably dishonest as well as ignorant and, more likely, dishonestly ignorant. Inevitably, any forthcoming reform of American immigration laws is going to give results that will seem racist in comparison. Brace yourselves with facts!
All data from Homeland Security: Immigration Statistics and Data
I am an American sociologist by training, with a doctorate from a good university. I am also an immigrant and married to another immigrant, from another country. Together, we have two adopted children, both born abroad. I have lived in the US for fifty years. During that time, I have rarely been out of touch with immigration issues although they are not one of my subjects of systematic scholarly inquiry. Many other essays are here in Notes On Liberty and also on my blog: factsmatter.wordpress.com.