Magazine | September 19, 2011, Issue

Who’s Next?

A lottery is no way to pick who gets to be American

Imagine a corporation that hired people without reading their résumés, or a major university that drew admissions applications from a hat, or a sports team that filled its roster by sticking pins into the local phone book. These images are a good way to begin thinking about the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which the House Judiciary Committee recently recommended abolishing.

Each year, the U.S. admits about 50,000 immigrants who have literally won the lottery, the luckiest 1 percent or so of those who put their names into the giant State Department hat, hoping to win a green card. But unlike the hypothetical schools and businesses that made no attempt to judge qualifications, the lottery does impose one requirement on participants: They must be “diverse.” Such a dubious and potentially counterproductive goal makes the green-card lottery not merely careless, but irrational.

Before detailing just how irrational the lottery is, it is worth explaining how it works and why we have it. True to its name, the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (“diversity lottery” for short) is not open to residents of countries that already send us thousands of immigrants each year through other categories of admission. Canadians, Mexicans, Brazilians, and Poles, for example, are not eligible. All non-excluded countries are given visas in proportion to their region’s immigration rarity — the fewer regular immigrants a region sends, the more diversity visas it receives.

Aside from living in an eligible country, the only requirement for lottery applicants is a high-school diploma or (not and) two years working at a job that requires two years of training to hold. People who meet that minimal skill requirement are free to enter the diversity lottery once per year. A computer randomly selects the winners.

Strictly speaking, the lottery increases the national-origins diversity of recent immigrants, but not necessarily the diversity of the U.S. as a whole. In fact, the lottery grew out of an attempt by Italian-American and Irish-American politicians, most notably Sen. Ted Kennedy, to increase immigration from their ancestral lands. Immigration reform in 1965 had ended the longstanding preferences for Europeans, and most would-be immigrants from Europe (particularly the Irish) qualified for neither the new family-reunification category nor the skills category. So the lottery was devised in the 1980s as a way to open more avenues for European immigration.

If the lottery mainly facilitated immigration from Ireland and other European countries that once sent many immigrants to the U.S. and now send relatively few, then the “diversity” lottery would actually bolster America’s white majority. But the lottery has not worked as intended. In practice, it grants green cards to entrants from large portions of the world that have little or no history of immigration to the U.S., thus increasing the ethnic and cultural heterogeneity of our nation.

Some 78 percent of immigrants arriving on diversity visas last year were born in Africa or Asia, compared with just 19 percent from Europe. The top ten sending countries were, in order: Ethiopia, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Kenya, Ghana, Ukraine, Morocco, and Nepal. The first country on the list with a significant precedent for sending immigrants to the U.S. is Germany, at number 16.

Now that the ethnic composition of diversity immigrants has changed, so have the ethnic politics surrounding the program. Ted Kennedy was the lottery’s champion when it led to more Irish immigrants. Now Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.), who is black, is a strong supporter of the lottery explicitly because many Africans use it to immigrate.

#page#So what is objectionable about the diversity lottery? In July, when the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would abolish it, the bill’s sponsors emphasized fraud and national-security risks. Not lost on the committee was a 2007 Government Accountability Office report that found “pervasive fraud” in applications to the program, including the use of fake birth certificates and passports to support multiple entries for a single person.

The national-security risk of the lottery is certainly real, but the program is problematic for a more fundamental reason: It does not select for any of the immigrant characteristics that most Americans consider important. The three main kinds of legal immigrants the U.S. currently accepts are people with family members already in the U.S. (66 percent of immigrants in 2010), workers with desirable skills (14 percent), and refugees (13 percent). But the lottery involves no selection at all. It does not make our workforce more skilled, reunite families, or further any humanitarian ends. Its exclusive purpose is to increase the national-origins diversity of immigrants.

Even if such diversity were desirable, one can imagine a much more systematic means of achieving it. Instead of walling off the pursuit of diversity from other categories of admission, the U.S. could balance diversity with other selection factors, eschewing a lottery altogether in favor of (for example) a point system.

But keeping diversity as a goal in any selection system, randomized or not, would be a mistake. Ethnic and cultural heterogeneity presents significant challenges for modern societies, and those challenges are underappreciated by politicians and members of the media, most of whom seem to believe that diversity is an unmitigated good. “Diversity is our strength” is, after all, the mantra we hear repeated by many politicians. Corporations, universities, news organizations, and major foundations brag about their continued pursuit of diversity, almost never giving concrete reasons why such diversity should be valued in the first place.

In fact, recent academic evidence suggests that diversity weakens the social ties that bind neighborhoods and towns together. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has been at the forefront of this research, which examines the level of “social capital” in communities with high versus low levels of diversity. Social capital is a broad term for networks of friends, family, businesses, and civic groups, all held together by established norms of reciprocity and trust. Social capital is “the stuff of life,” and communities that have more of it tend to be happier and more successful by almost any measure. Putnam explains: “Where levels of social capital are higher, children grow up healthier, safer and better educated; people live longer, happier lives; and democracy and the economy work better.”

After controlling for a large number of other community characteristics, Putnam found that ethnic diversity reduces social capital. More specifically, people living in diverse communities will, on average, trust their neighbors less, maintain fewer friendships, participate less in community groups, give less to charity, and report lower levels of happiness than those in non-diverse ones. Putnam found that diversity actually causes people to trust everyone less, including members of their own ethnic group. Diversity leads not so much to sharp inter-ethnic conflict as to a kind of draining social apathy.

Putnam’s work is in accord with what other political scientists have been observing for many years: While diversity of skills can be highly beneficial to a society, diversity of ethnicity, language, or culture is often an obstacle rather than a benefit. Even supporters of the bill to abolish the lottery seem unable to understand this, or at least unwilling to say it. So when a Democrat claimed during a hearing on the abolition bill that diversity “enriches our society,” the Republican chairman of the subcommittee, a co-sponsor of the bill, did not contest the point but merely promised that there would still be other avenues through which to pursue diversity.

The U.S. is already a highly diverse nation, and today it is faced with assimilating a new wave of immigrants from Latin America and Asia. Increasing that diversity still further without any understanding of the associated costs is not good policy. Abolishing the diversity lottery, as the House may attempt to do, would be a recognition of that reality. If we eventually decide that greater immigrant diversity is necessary, it should occur only after a careful analysis of its costs and benefits in conjunction with our other immigration goals.

Ending the lottery would also be a major step toward renewing a vital national discussion about legal immigration. Politicians who decry illegal immigration are often quick to assure us that “legal immigration is great,” with no further details or qualifications. That’s not good enough. Just who should immigrate? What qualities are we looking for? What kinds of people are best prepared to become Americans? What does it even mean to be an American in 2011, and what do we want it to mean in the future? The persistence of a program that randomly picks new people to join our nation is emblematic of our unwillingness to tackle those questions.

– Mr. Richwine is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Jason Richwine — Jason Richwine is a public-policy analyst and a contributor to National Review Online.

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