Every year, up to 50,000 people around the world are selected for the United States’ “diversity” visa lottery, out of around 14 million applicants. Yet despite its name, the lottery wasn’t originally intended to promote cultural and racial diversity in the U.S. Back when Congress introduced it in 1986, the goal was to ease immigration for Irish and Italian immigrants.
At the time, many Irish applicants didn’t have the right job skills or close-enough relatives in the U.S. (such as a sister, rather than an aunt) in order to immigrate. Though many Italians did have close relatives in the U.S., there was a huge backlog in applications that stalled the ease with which Italians had previously been able to enter the country.
The reason Congress sold this lottery as a “diversity” initiative was because “it’s not going to be politically feasible to tell people, ‘We have created a new visa for people who have no close family relationships in the U.S. and no job skills,’” says Anna Law, a political science professor at the City University of New York-Brooklyn College. “There’s a multiculturalism movement going on, so the creators of this program sort of wrapped themselves around the diversity language of it.”
To understand the full context of the lottery, we have to go back to 1965, when the U.S conducted “the last major structural overhaul of our immigration system,” says Law. That year, a new immigration law ended a decades-long quota system that had given preference to Europeans over other immigrants. In its place, the law allowed every country to send up to 20,000 immigrants to the U.S. per year.
That doesn’t mean that every country did get to send that many. With the new law, the U.S. began evaluating applicants based on whether they had relatives in the U.S., certain job skills, or refugee status, and turning away people who didn’t meet the criteria. In addition, Western and Eastern hemispheres had immigration caps of 120,000 and 170,000, respectively, to limit overall immigration. (According to Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.S. currently does not issue more than seven percent of the total allowable visas to one nation.)
This caused “a very significant demographic shift of the stream of immigrants,” Law says, which “the framers did not anticipate.” Before the 1965 act, most visas went to Europeans. In particular, Irish and Italian immigration was “fairly unrestricted.” But in the decades after the law’s passage, more immigrants began to come from Asia and Latin America, and Irish and Italians found it harder to legally immigrate than ever before.
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During the 1980s, Irish- and Italian-American groups successfully lobbied Congress to change immigration policies so they would be more favorable to these nations. At the time, Ireland’s economy was in crisis, and many Irish immigrants were staying in the U.S. after their tourist visas had expired—meaning that they were living as undocumented immigrants.
Rather than deporting these undocumented immigrants, Irish- and Italian-American Congressmen offered a 1986 lottery system to provide more visas to countries that had not been able to use more than 25 percent of their allotted 20,000 annual visas.
“Those countries go on a list of ‘adversely affected,’ and only the people from those countries can apply for the lottery,” Law says. “Very tellingly, the first three years of the visa lottery, 40 percent of the visas are reserved for Ireland.”
By the mid-1990s, Law says that Irish and Italians weren’t as interested in immigrating to the U.S. anymore because the Irish economy had picked up and the European Union had opened up movement within the continent. After that, the disingenuously-named “diversity” system actually started to become more diverse. Europeans still make up a significant portion of the lottery recipients, yet today the majority of lottery visas go to residents of African countries.
But it’s possible that this system won’t last forever. After a truck attack in New York City on October 31, 2017, President Donald Trump called for a complete end to the lottery, citing the fact that the attacker—who killed eight people and injured 12 others—won the lottery and immigrated from Uzbekistan.
Overall, the U.S. accepts around a half-million new, documented immigrants each year, and renews the visas of about a half-million more. Because of this, Law points out ending a lottery system that awards up to 50,000 visas per year won’t actually make a huge dent in immigration to the United States.