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.