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Explainer: The Facts Behind The Now-Endangered U.S. 'Diversity Visa' Plan

A Yemeni national who was denied entry into the U.S. because of the travel ban shows the canceled visa in his passport.
A Yemeni national who was denied entry into the U.S. because of the travel ban shows the canceled visa in his passport.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump has demanded an end to the visa lottery program that grants legal permanent residency -- so-called green cards -- to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

Trump’s call came after police identified an Uzbek immigrant as the suspect who allegedly killed eight people and injured many more by mowing them down on a New York City bicycle path in a rented truck on October 31.

Sayfullo Saipov, 29, entered the country legally in 2010 under the Diversity Visa Immigrant Program, authorities said.

Even before the attack, there were calls from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers to end the program in favor of a more merit-based system.

The program, which was established to facilitate cultural diversity when signed into law by former President George H.W. Bush in 1990, provides up to 50,000 visas annually by a lottery process. Winners receive green cards, which allow for permanent residency.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, diversity-visa recipients represented a small proportion of the 1.05 million people who received legal permanent resident status under all immigration procedures in 2015, the most recent available data.

Who is eligible to apply and what are the requirements?

Unlike other immigrants, applicants for a diversity visa do not need to possess any specific skills or have close relatives already living in the United States, according to the U.S. State Department.

Sayfullo Saipov
Sayfullo Saipov

However, applicants must have a high school education or two years of qualifying work experience in the preceding five years. There is no cost to apply, but applicants must be able to prove they will be able to support themselves in the United States.

If chosen through the lottery, it does not necessarily mean a person will receive a green card, only that the person can then apply for one.

Further information is typically required from lottery winners, including an interview conducted by U.S. consular officials in the applicant’s home country.

Only one entry per person is allowed, but winners of visas are allowed to bring spouses and minor children as well.

Up to 15 million people apply for the lottery each year, despite the limited number of visas actually offered. In 2016, people from Saipov’s home country, Uzbekistan, won 2,378 green cards under the program.

People who win green cards are eligible to apply for citizenship after five years.

What other supporting documents are required?

Original birth certificates must be submitted, as well as work and education certificates.

Each applicant aged 16 or older must provide police certificates, including information on any arrests, to U.S. officials during their personal interview. Military and marriage records are also required.

Applicants from what countries are eligible to apply?

People from 181 countries, along with many of their dependencies and overseas territories, were eligible to apply for the 2018 program, which has already been closed to applicants.

More than a dozen countries, however, were excluded due to high numbers of immigrants in the past five years: Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, the United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland), and Vietnam.

Who has received lottery visas in the past?

The State Department reports that in 2016, people from Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, and Nepal, along with Uzbekistan, all received more than 2,000 visas. Nepal received the most, with 3,247.

Russians received 1,401, Ukrainians 1,787, Moldovans 1,189, and Armenians 1,000, according to State Department data.

Why do Trump and some lawmakers want to end the program?

During his presidential campaign and into his presidency, Trump has pressed for stricter controls over the immigration process, saying they are necessary to prevent potential terrorists from entering the United States and to cut down on crime.

He has pushed for bans on travelers and immigrants from some countries, mainly Muslim-majority nations, and has called for “extreme vetting” for foreigners.

Critics of the lottery program, including both Republicans and Democrats, argue that the program creates national security risks.

They say it also brings in immigrants with low skills at the expense of other, more highly skilled workers and unfairly allows in people with no connections to the United States, while others with family in the country are blocked.

Critics say no other country selects immigrants in this manner, and some have pointed out the potential for fraud, noting that one year a person submitted more than 2,000 applications.

Supporters of the procedure say it helps bring in people from a diverse list of countries, such as in Africa, that might not otherwise receive green cards.

After the New York terror incident, Trump called on Congress to terminate the program.