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Why Congress Should Save the Green Card Lottery

9 Dec

The partisan fight over immigration reform is far from over, but one casualty is likely to be the U.S. green card lottery, the tiny program that confers legal immigration status on people from countries underrepresented in America’s melting pot. The Senate’s immigration bill, currently in legislative limbo, proposes to end it, and analysts told the Wall Street Journal that the green card lottery probably won’t survive, regardless of whose bill makes the final rules.

The arguments against the lottery boil down to a belief that luck alone does not merit granting someone legal immigration status. More than 4 million people are awaiting a green card, many for decades, even with families waiting for them in the U.S. Business leaders cite a skill shortage among American workers and say they need capable workers from abroad. Even though the lottery accounts for less than 5 percent of new green card issuances, critics say those cards should have gone to more demonstrably deserving candidates.

The problem with that argument is that family ties and job skills aren’t the only predictors of success. Sometimes you don’t know which immigrants will add economic value. Case in point: The lottery was largely responsible for America’s recent—and successful—African immigration boom.

In 1990, less than 2 percent of America’s foreign-born population had originated in Africa; nearly 4 percent have today. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 42 percent of African-born adults living in the United States have a bachelor’s degree, significantly higher than the 28 percent of native-born Americans and the 27 percent of foreign-born adults who do. African-born immigrants also have higher rates of labor force participation. (To be fair, they also face higher poverty rates.)

Kader Karamon, an economist at Freddie Mac (FMCC) in Washington, won the green card lottery in 2000, when he was 23. At the time, he was living in Togo, where, he says, limited opportunity and rampant corruption made him feel that he was “wasting his life.”

Karamon came to the U.S. with a high school diploma and little English. After he arrived, he worked a series of menial jobs and then, in 2002, enrolled as a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. A few years after he graduated, he moved to Paris and completed a master’s degree. He never doubted he’d return to America. “The U.S. affords more opportunity to express yourself as a foreigner,” he explains.

For Karamon and others like him, the green card lottery was their only option. Legal immigration ordinarily requires family or employer sponsorship, refugee status, or enough money for a student visa. In 1996, 40 percent of permanent African  immigrants came via the lottery. Now that the African diaspora population has grown, more Africans have American relatives who can serve as sponsors; only 18 percent of permanent African immigrants are lottery winners, with more than half sponsored by family. Still,  Africans make up about half of all lottery-winning immigrants—about 20,000 each year since the mid-1990s.

Despite the success of the African immigrant population, the lottery has fallen out of favor. “A lottery is not a way to run an immigration system,” Cornell immigration professor Stephen Yale-Loehr told the Journal. “It doesn’t strengthen family ties, promote our economic interests, or rescue refugees. Congress should abolish the program.”

That kind of thinking represents a fundamental shift in American values. The green card lottery most closely resembles immigration policy at the turn of the last century—when Europeans with few ties and little education were freely accepted. On paper, Karamon didn’t look to be good immigration material—no money, no family, no discernible skills. He may be an exceptional case, but the relative, recent success of the African immigrant population suggests it still may be worth taking a chance on a lucky few.