It’s been less than 24 hours since a truck driver killed eight people by intentionally plowing into pedestrians and cyclists near the World Trade Center, but a political scapegoat for what officials are calling the deadliest terror attack in New York since 9/11 has already been found.
The perpetrator of the attack has been identified as Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old immigrant from Uzbekistan who worked as an Uber driver and lived in nearby Paterson, New Jersey. Saipov came to the U.S. legally in 2010 through an obscure State Department program called the diversity visa lottery, which is now being blamed for the tragedy.
“I am today starting the process of terminating the diversity lottery program,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday. “I am going to ask Congress to immediately initiate work to get rid of this program… Diversity lottery. Sounds nice. It’s not nice. It’s not good. It hasn’t been good. We’ve been against it.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump fixated on diversity visas in a flurry of tweets. He called the program “a Chuck Schumer beauty” after the Democratic senator from New York who sponsored the 1990 legislation that created it. The program grants 50,000 green cards per year to people from countries like Uzbekistan, which are relatively underrepresented in the U.S. immigration system. The selection process is called a lottery because it’s random and the odds are long. In 2015, more than 9.3 million people entered to win, giving the program an acceptance rate far lower than Harvard.
Trump and other Republicans have already been pushing to get rid of the diversity visa lottery and replace it with an entirely “merit based” system that prioritizes skilled laborers who speak English. Linking the program to a deadly terrorist attack is the perfect way to drum up support for their plan, but a closer look at history and the underlying data suggests it would do virtually nothing to improve national security or bolster the economy.
THE TERRORISM CONNECTION
This isn’t the first time that diversity visas have come under scrutiny after a terrorist attack. Amid the wave of xenophobia that followed 9/11, Republicans and anti-immigration groups questioned whether the program was safe and still necessary, even though none of the hijackers used it to enter the country.
“If one were to set out to design a visa that was ideal for terrorists,” Steven Camarota from the Center for Immigration Studies testified before a House subcommittee in 2004, “the visa lottery system would be it.”
The primary criticism is that there’s no security screening process for applicants, but people who are among the 50,000 selected to receive visas must provide detailed background information, undergo face-to-face interviews, and pass security and health screenings.
There have only been a handful of terror incidents linked to the program over the years, and only one of them prior to Tuesday was fatal.
- Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian immigrant, fatally shot two people at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002. He came to the U.S. on a tourist visa that he overstayed, but his wife won the lottery in 1997, allowing him to legally stay in the country.
- Abdurasul Juraboev, who immigrated from Uzbekistan after winning the green card lottery in 2011, was convicted of attempting to join ISIS in Syria in 2015.
- Ahmed Mohamud, an immigrant from Somalia, won a green card through the diversity visa lottery in 2004. He played what prosecutors described as a “minimal role” in a 2011 scheme to send money to the terrorist group al-Shabaab.
- Two green card lottery winners from Morocco, Ahmed Hannan and Karim Koubriti, were indicted in 2002 and accused of being members of an alleged terrorist “sleeper” cell in Michigan that was planning attacks in the U.S. and abroad. The terrorism prosecution was later dropped amid allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., pointed out, however, that Trump hasn’t included Uzbeks in any of the iterations of his travel ban. The State Department reports that Uzbekistan’s government cooperates with the U.S. counterterrorism efforts, and the country isn’t considered to be a “terrorist safe haven.” In other words, nobody saw the Tuesday attack coming and nothing Trump has proposed so far would have prevented it.
“The travel ban is not actually based on its stated criteria, and many countries that should be on the list are not, while others that are on the list should not be,” Bier said. “For this reason, I would not be surprised if the president bans Uzbeks in response to this attack. On the other hand, no national of any current or former travel ban countries has killed anyone in a terrorist attack in the United States, so it’s still unclear exactly what matters for the ban.”
IT’S NOT THE ECONOMY, STUPID
The other case against the diversity visa lottery is economic. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, has introduced the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, which would do away with the lottery and make it significantly harder for unskilled immigrants who don’t speak English to get into the country.
“Most of the people coming to our country are coming because they are distant relatives, under the outdated diversity lottery or as refugees,” Cotton told Fox News earlier this year. “Obviously they don’t have the kind of high skills our economy needs.”
But in order to qualify for a green card through the lottery, applicants must already provide proof of a high school education and show two years of work experience in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience within the past five years.
Economic research has also shown that letting unskilled immigrants into the country doesn’t hurt U.S. citizens. “The massive flow of immigrants into the U.S. in the past few decades has had little negative impact on the average wages of native‐born workers,” Dartmouth Professor Ethan Lewis wrote in a 2012 study.
On top of everything else, proponents of the visa lottery make the case that it’s uniquely American. It was originally proposed by Massachusetts representatives in Congress as a way to help Irish immigrants who couldn’t get a visa through other means, but it has since morphed into something more, a symbol of U.S. egalitarianism.
“It’s just a matter of fairness. No one area of the world should have access to the American dream at the expense of others,” Brian Donnelly, a Congressman from 1979 to 1993 and helped create the diversity visa program, told the Guardian earlier this year. “A lottery would be the fairest way, no favoritism. We literally couldn’t think of a fairer way to do it.… we should never go away from our tradition of allowing people in regardless of whether they’re rich or poor or smart or dumb.”
CORRECTION (November 2, 9:05 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misidentified Sen. Tom Cotton’s home state. He’s from Arkansas, not Texas.