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The Diversity Visa Program Holds Lessons for Future Legal Immigration Reform
February 2018

The Diversity Visa Program Holds Lessons for Future Legal Immigration Reform


Described by President Trump as bringing “the worst of the worst” to the United States, the Diversity Visa Program may be on the chopping block as a tradeoff for legalization for DREAMers, the unauthorized immigrants who came to the United States as children. Critics view the program, also known as the green-card lottery, as one that brings in immigrants with low levels of skills and education. But the data show a different story: Half of diversity visa holders come to the United States with a college degree. These highly skilled individuals arrive despite the fact the program is not set up to reward merit; applicants are required only to have a high school diploma or equivalent, or two years of mid-level work experience.

The Diversity Visa Program has long been under threat of elimination, and the merits of its current design are probably overdue for debate. But the discussion should start with the facts about how the program functions, and who comes on a diversity visa. And, future efforts to reform legal immigration should take a key lesson from the diversity visa experiment: Immigration policies do not need to explicitly prioritize highly skilled immigrants to attract skilled people to the United States.

How Does the Program Work?

Nationals from countries that send few immigrants to the United States—defined as those with fewer than 50,000 nationals admitted over the past five years—can enter the visa lottery, which allocates 50,000 green cards annually. Foreign governments play no role in selecting who applies for the visa.

After all applications are submitted in a given year, a number that spanned more than 14 million in fiscal year (FY) 2017, the U.S. government conducts a virtual lottery of qualified applicants, randomly selecting those who will be invited to apply. Those who “win” are then invited to apply for a green card. These applicants are subject to the same requirements, background checks, and security screenings all other green-card applicants undergo.

What Are the Origins for Diversity Visa Recipients?

Of those who received a green card through the Diversity Visa Program in FY 2012-16, 42 percent were from Africa, 31 percent from Asia (mostly Central Asia), and 22 percent from Europe (mostly Eastern Europe). The top ten countries were: Nepal, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Iran, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Ukraine, Russia, and Cameroon.

Low Qualifying Criteria, But High Educational Attainment

The government does not report much information on the characteristics of diversity visa holders. Fifty-five percent in FY 2016 were male, and by age, those in their 20s and 30s represented the largest share, meaning they are entering the United States early in their working years.

In the absence of more detailed information, another way to understand their characteristics is to look at the profiles of immigrants from countries that have been big users of the Diversity Visa Program in recent years, using data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). As it is not possible to distinguish those arriving on diversity visas from other types of visa holders, we look at all immigrants from countries for which at least 25 percent of new green-card holders came with diversity visas in FY 2012-16. Twenty-three countries met this threshold, accounting for 48 percent of all diversity visas over this five-year period. Of these countries, 19 are identifiable in the ACS data.

Among recent immigrants ages 25 and older from these 19 countries, 50 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher (compared to 32 percent of the overall U.S. population in 2016), 16 percent reported some college education, and 12 percent had less than a high school diploma.

Figure 1. Educational Attainment of Recent Immigrants from Top Diversity Visa Countries, 2016

Note: Recent immigrants are defined here are those who entered in 2012-16.
Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulations of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey (ACS) file, accessed from Steven Ruggles, Matthew Sobek, Trent Alexander, Catherine A. Fitch, Ronald Goeken, Patricia Kelly Hall, Miriam King, and Chad Ronnander, "Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 4.0" (Machine-readable database, Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor], 2018).

Another source of information on diversity visa winners’ educational attainment is an older survey— the New Immigrant Survey. That 2003 study, the latest of its kind, followed a group of immigrants who obtained green cards in 2003. In that year’s diversity visa cohort, 50 percent had a college degree (32 percent with a bachelor’s degree and 18 percent with a graduate degree). These shares are higher than those for all family-sponsored immigrants in the study, but lower than those for employment-based immigrants, among whom 43 percent had a bachelor’s degree and 37 percent had a graduate degree.

Lessons for the Broader Immigration Debate

Several major immigration reform proposals of the last decade or so have called for the elimination of the Diversity Visa Program. It is an anomalous program in U.S. immigration policy, in that it is one of the few ways that someone can obtain a green card without sponsorship by a U.S.-based family member or employer. U.S. immigration has long been structured around the ability for U.S. citizens and permanent residents to reunite with relatives and the needs of U.S. employers.

However, the high educational attainment of diversity visa holders proves an important lesson for future U.S. immigration reforms: One does not need a “merit-based” system, or one that allows entry only of college- or graduate-educated individuals in order to attract highly skilled immigrants. Talented individuals from around the world are motivated to contribute their skills and unique perspectives to the United States, and are likely to come through whatever open channels they can—whether family-, employment-, or diversity lottery-based.