Green card lottery invented to help the Irish - under Trump, its luck may have run out
New bill would slash immigration, writes Michael E Miller
US President Donald Trump backed a new Senate bill on Wednesday that would dramatically slash legal immigration levels.
Among the provisions of the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act is a proposal to axe the controversial Diversity Visa Lottery, better known as the green card lottery.
The new immigration legislation faces an uphill battle. If it does become law, it will mark the end of a beleaguered but beloved programme that has brought more than a million people to America to become citizens.
The lottery's origin dates back to the mid-1980s, when America had an Irish problem. Hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants were flocking to the US, fleeing an economic crisis back home. They arrived too late to qualify for amnesty. Few had the family ties or job experience to qualify for green cards. And many were undocumented, coming as tourists and overstaying their visas.
Irish-American members of Congress came up with a solution. A green card lottery.
More than 30 years later, what was once openly pitched as a way to aid the Irish has now evolved into a global operation that each year brings up to 50,000 people to the US, mostly from Africa or eastern Europe.
At noon on May 2, millions of people around the world clicked on the State Department website to find out if they had won.
This year's lottery could be the last, however. Amid intense debate about immigration, at least two bills in Congress would eliminate the programme.
Now Trump, who has long called for a "merit-based" immigration system, has endorsed a bill that would kill the lottery.
Historians have mixed emotions about the idea of axing the green card lottery.
Anna Law, a political science professor at CUNY Brooklyn College, said she would shed no tears if the odd raffle comes to an end.
"It was about straight up, pork barrel politics," she said of the lottery's pro-Irish origins. "The start of it was very cynical."
The roots of the phenomenon can be traced back to the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated a quota system and instead prioritised reuniting families and attracting skilled labourers to the US.
The progressive act had an unanticipated effect on the mix of people coming to America, according to Ms Law. Asian and Latino immigration rose while immigration from Ireland, Italy and other western European countries dropped.
Previously, Ireland had been a "high quota country with a demand for immigration that was below the supply of visas", Ms Law wrote in a 2002 paper. "The procedure for non-preference immigrants to get a visa was fairly simple and pretty much any Irish man or woman who wanted to immigrate could just pick up and do so, with relative ease."
After 1965, however, the majority of the Irish who wanted to immigrate had only distant relatives in the US (cousins, aunts, uncles) and none close enough to petition for them. Those who had no relatives to petition for them could theoretically obtain a visa by qualifying through one of the employment preferences, but few of the Irish possessed the skills and education to qualify via an employment preference.
For a decade, Irish-American lawmakers offered different ways of increasing legal Irish immigration, but weren't able to pass them.
By the early 1980s, Ireland was undergoing an economic crisis that earned it the nickname "the sick man of Europe". Unable to immigrate legally, hundreds of thousands of Irish came to America as tourists and then overstayed their visas.
"About 150,000 Irish immigrants came to New York as students or tourists over the last six years and stayed on as undocumented aliens," the 'New York Times' reported in 1988.
In 1986, Republican Brian J Donnelly proposed an amendment to the Immigration Reform and Control Act that would provide 10,000 visas on a first-come, first-served basis for nationals of countries "adversely affected" by the 1965 changes. Senator Ted Kennedy filed similar legislation in the Senate. Then-speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill - yet another Irish-American from Massachusetts - ensured the amendment passed.
The Irish were well prepared. Undocumented Irish immigrants in the US applied en masse, submitting multiple applications, which was allowed at the time.
The Irish government even got involved, "chartering planes and literally depositing the applications in post office boxes on Capitol Hill", according to Ms Law.
"People still talk about Donnelly-visa parties, held in the US and in Ireland, where guests spent the early evening filling out hundreds of applications for the host," the 'Times' reported. "Some applicants were known to have sent as many as 500 forms."
As a result, the first green card lottery was very green indeed.
Donnelly's NP-5 programme was a one-off. But he and others in Congress fought for a permanent version of the green card lottery in the Immigration Act of 1990, cagily couching it as an issue of "diversity".
"That was the rhetoric they used," Ms Law said. "They couldn't call it the 'White-Europeans-who-don't-have-job-skills-American-employers-want-and-don't-have-ties-to-anyone-in-the-United-States-but-want-to-come-anyway' lottery."
The Diversity Visa Lottery - in which 50,000 winners are chosen randomly from around the world, with high-immigration countries like India, China and Mexico excluded - went into effect in the fiscal year of 1995. But the Immigration Act of 1990 also included a transitional programme that ran from 1991 to 1994.
Unsurprisingly, the Irish again dominated with 40pc - or 18,000 - of the 40,000 visas for fiscal years 1992-1994, according to Ms Law.
As the economy improved in Ireland in the late 1990s and 2000s, fewer and fewer Irish entered the green card lottery. (In fiscal year 2016, only 36 Irish received a diversity visa.) Instead, over time, the programme has primarily come to serve eastern Europe and Africa.
Despite its pro-Irish origins, the Diversity Visa Lottery now lives up to its name, Ms Law admitted.
"It's much more diverse now," she said. "You can't even make fun of it anymore."
Carly Goodman, a historian who has written a book about the Diversity Lottery, disagreed.
"This programme is pretty powerful public diplomacy for the US that signals its openness and generosity," she said, noting that many Africans she spoke to for her book viewed the lottery as aid or a gift from America to Africa. The lottery also pays for itself in visa application fees, she noted.
"Its elimination would be very short-sighted," she said.
Ms Law, who is ambivalent about the lottery, said America could miss out on a particular type of immigrant if it axes the programme.
"Put the funky, pork barrel politics aside. You could argue there is some value in bringing people to this country who, by their own gumption, are willing to leave everything behind - they have no ties here - and are willing to have a go at it."