While Donald Trump has loudly attacked the low-hanging fruit that is illegal immigration, his administration has quietly implemented a xenophobic crackdown on legal immigrants.
According to a now-famous report in January 2018, an exasperated Trump asked Senate leaders gathered in the Oval Office to discuss reforms to the legal immigration system: "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" Nearly two years after first outlining his push against people from those so-called countries legally emigrating to the U.S., the president finally followed up on his threats and introduced a sweeping immigration reform plan. It was immediately panned by his own party.
“We seem to never fail to miss an opportunity to fail,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, of the effort to overhaul the legal immigration system. The plan, crafted by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and top White House adviser Stephen Miller, would slash legal immigration in certain categories without expanding it anywhere else. Under Trump’s “merit-based” proposal, immigrants would be selected through a point-based system that scores for “extraordinary talent, professional and specialized vocations, and exceptional academic track records.” But it appears dead on arrival in the Republican-led Senate.
Now, shortly after Trump’s threats to impose blunt new tariffs on Mexico (since retracted) unleashed a new round of outcry from Republicans in Congress, his administration has begun implementing the immigration agenda he could not get passed legislatively.
The State Department announced this week a major change to the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which Trump has repeatedly maligned. The first new rule requires applicants to already have a passport at the time of application. The second mandates that any typographical error on the application results in immediate, unappealable disqualification.
Trump's proposal to circumvent Congress in pursuit of crushing this program is in line with his notion of wanting fewer people from the "shithole" countries — effectively anywhere in the global South — and more from rich white countries in Europe. Depending on the country, passports can be logistically and financially difficult to come by, so this new requirement will reduce the number of applicants — with poor applicants and those from rural areas likely taking the biggest hit.
Established in 1990, the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program is meant to encourage immigration to the U.S. from countries with historically low rates of emigration. It was initially created to revive dwindling European immigration after Irish-American and Italian-American lawmakers argued that the "old seed" immigrant groups were being shut out by newer groups from Asia and Latin America. The program also helps balance the U.S. immigration system’s tendency to favor individuals who have close relationships with family members or employers in the U.S. who are able to sponsor their visas.
Only nationals of low-admission countries — defined as any country with fewer than 50,000 natives admitted to the U.S. in the previous five years, such as Cameroon or Sri Lanka — are eligible to enter the diversity lottery. Citizens of countries with the most legal immigrant arrivals in recent years — such as Mexico, Canada, China and India — are not eligible to apply. Additionally, no more than 7% of the year's available visas may go to natives of any one country. In 2015, the year with the most recent available data, 41% of diversity lotto visas were granted to natives of African countries. The single largest number of such visas in 2015 went to Nepal.
The odds of getting a visa this way are severely low: Almost 14.7 million people from all over the world entered the lottery last year. 100,000 were randomly selected to undergo extensive screening, which includes identity confirmations using biometrics, criminal investigation and in-person interviews. Lottery entry requirements also include at least a high school education, or two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience to perform. Ultimately, permanent visas are limited by law to only 50,000 people per year.
“Diversity lottery. Sounds nice. It’s not nice. It’s not good,” Trump has said when attacking the program in the past. “It hasn’t been good. We’ve been against it.” He falsely claimed countries are taking advantage of the lottery program, saying in 2017 of such countries that "they give us their worst people, they put them in a bin," and then "the worst of the worst" are selected.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders falsely claimed that immigrants coming to the U.S. through the diversity visa are not vetted before their arrival.
In reality, countries have no way to nominate their citizens and cannot select who they’d like to get rid of.
As immigration reporter Dara Lind wrote in Vox, Trump’s attacks on this program “evoke the idea that immigration is a form of social engineering, perpetrated by elites to transform America into something fundamentally different and alien.” That idea is a staple of far-right anti-immigrant sentiment.
For decades, the diversity visa lottery program has given a small number of beneficiaries of improbable luck an opportunity to come to the U.S. — including very poor people in dire straits. Trump wants to eliminate this golden opportunity. His "merit-based" program amounts to marginalizing people based on resources. Most of the highly skilled people likely to qualify come from elite families who are able to enroll their children in expensive schools. Eventually, Trump’s plan would limit immigration into the U.S. to the privileged and wealthy.
Along with this new crackdown on the diversity lottery visa, Trump has previously radically restricted the number of refugees admitted to the U.S and imposed a travel ban on several majority-Muslim nations. Approval of H-1B visas, whose recipients are picked out of a lottery and are usually high-skilled workers in tech, was down 10% year-over-year in 2018. The administration also recently announced the closure of all international offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) by the end of the year. This is not a cost-saving measure; USCIS is fee funded and often runs a budget surplus.
León Rodríguez, USCIS director during the Obama administration, described the closure of the agency's international offices as “in keeping with this isolationist bent that this administration has had more broadly."