The future of immigration in the U.S. is a flashpoint for conflict. President-elect Donald Trump claims illegal immigration is a top priority. There is a reported backlog of more than 520,000 immigration cases awaiting hearings. And the proposed appointment of anti-immigration proponent Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general is a cause for concern.
It’s clear that the U.S. legacy of immigration is not one of idealism, but one of selectivity. I’ve experienced this firsthand.
In 1997 I received a letter on green paper from the U.S. government notifying me that I had been selected in the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (aka “the Green Card Lottery”) to apply for U.S. permanent residency. As an Italian citizen and graduate student on a student visa at Syracuse University in New York, I was classified as a non-resident alien. This letter would change my life.
Obtaining permanent residency was complicated, expensive, fraught with uncertainty and sometimes offensive and demeaning. But there were bright sides in the form of two Syracuse University professors who sponsored my application, because, as a student with no proof of continuous U.S. income, I would not have been eligible to apply without their sponsorship. I owe my American life to their trust in me.
For many years since, I told the story of my Italian self—who didn’t know anyone in this country before arrival—surmounting incredible odds and succeeding in getting into U.S. graduate school, a university fellowship, permanent residency, a job, U.S. citizenship, a PhD. I appeared to embody the American dream.
In 2010 I became the associate director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was there, studying and researching racial justice, that I began to see my journey to the U.S. through a different lens, or more accurately, in a different color.
Listening to people of color whose experience of immigration had been either exponentially more harrowing than mine or altogether unsuccessful, I began to see my U.S. naturalization in the light of my white skin, my Western European background, my educational privilege. It became clear that my path to citizenship had been smoothed by forces that are meant to help some groups of people succeed in this society and hold others back.
This system was divisive and not inclusive, as I had believed.
Created in 1987, the first Diversity Visa Program benefitted mainly Ireland, Canada and Great Britain including Northern Ireland, with the Irish winning nearly 40% of the first 10,000 visas in 1987 and more than 40% of the visas over a four-year span. It was created as a response to the 1965 Immigration Act, which shifted the composition of the immigrant pool from white Europeans to the families of recent immigrants of color, especially from Asia and Latin America.
At the time, unlike a true lottery, the visas were awarded first-come, first-serve with no restrictions on the number of applications per person. This meant that ethnic groups with the knowledge of the program and the political machinery to quickly act on that knowledge were at an advantage. Both in Ireland and in the U.S. Irish communities, this led some to organize Donnelly visa-parties, named after Brian J. Donnelly, the representative who supported the program, where partygoers would fill out applications for the host—as many as 500 forms for one applicant. Ireland even chartered planes to deliver the applications to Capitol Hill.
Warren Leiden, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, criticized the “short notice and low level of publicity, which he said would help those nationals with strong support groups like the Irish, Poles and Italians.” About 1.4 million applications were received during the one-week registration period of Jan. 21 to Jan. 27, 1987, and the same entries were used to award a total of 40,000 visas in 1987, 1988 and 1989.
In 1989, the diversity program transitioned to its second phase, a true random-based lottery with only one entry per person. Under that system, in 1990 the top three recipient countries were Bangladesh, Pakistan and Egypt, with the Irish only receiving 1%.
From 1991 to 1994, during its third incarnation, the program was once again amended to favor European countries. For these three years, 40% of the lottery visas, a total of 48,000, were reserved for Ireland and were known as the Morrison Visas for their sponsor, Bruce Morrison, D-Conn. In 1995, Ireland was also given priority for diversity visas unclaimed between 1991 and 1993, and received 1,303 of the 1,404 visas.
This didn’t happen unnoticed. Already in 1991, critics of the lottery noted that “at least in the initial phase, its favoritism to Europeans is tinged with racism” and that “very clearly the emphasis is on white immigration.”
To be sure, after 1994, the clauses favoring European immigrants expired and improving European economies meant a decreased interest in emigration towards the U.S. The visa lottery became what it is today: a random-based system of selecting immigrants from countries that are generally underrepresented in U.S. immigration. The continent that most benefits from the diversity visa lottery today is Africa, followed closely by Europe.
Personally, I felt disgusted when I found out about the initial intention of the lottery that made me a permanent U.S. resident. It strengthened and renewed my commitment and effort to work towards racial justice in the U.S.
The idea that Christian white immigrants should be welcomed to the U.S. at the expense of non-Christian immigrants of color sounds very familiar almost 30 years later. Trump’s election has brought into focus an America divided along racial lines. Trump’s team is reportedly preparing plans for a revised U.S.-Mexico border wall and a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries. The welcome of more than 14,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. in the past year, many of whom are Muslim, may stop abruptly under the new U.S. president.
As the history of the diversity lottery shows, these policies have clear roots in the U.S. past, and they may target new groups of immigrants but always with the same aim: a whiter America.
I urge white immigrants to reflect upon the history of our place in this racialized system and to recognize that our presence and our status in this country may not be solely the consequence of our own hard work, but the direct result of a race-based unjust system that often privileges the comfort and wellbeing of white people over the livelihood and the very lives of people of color.
We have an obligation to understand this system and make the conscious decision whether to benefit from it, participate in it, contribute to its sustenance or to call it out, to refuse to be part of it, actively work toward dismantling it and create a more fair, inclusive system.
The future and the faces of the American dream are at stake.