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Crosscurrents logo 2021

African immigrants worry with elimination of Diversity Visa


Last June, the U.S. Congress made a landmark decision to pass immigration reform. The new law eliminates the Diversity Immigrant Lottery Visa, also known as the Green Card Lottery. 

Every year, people from around the world play this lottery to get a U.S. Green Card. Every year since 1990, the U.S. has granted 50 thousand immigrant visas through the lottery to people from countries that are underrepresented in the U.S., like most African countries and some Asian countries. About half of these lottery visas have gone to immigrants from Africa. The elimination of the program is sparking questions and suspicion in African immigrant communities about why that is. 

Marie Sodgy is a Senegalese immigrant who owns two hair braiding salons in Hayward. Sodgy came to the US twenty two years ago through the Green Card lottery. She knows many family and friends who have a similar story. 

“People from Senegal, from Togo, from Ghana, even Nigeria, but mainly West African, a lot of people that I know that came through the lotto visa,” Sodgy says.

A friend of Sodgy, Marie Zohore, says the lottery has brought in a number of her friends, too, including a nurse and a teacher. She believes African immigrants are serious about creating better lives for themselves and being good citizens.

“They go to school, pay taxes, not into drugs,” Zohore says. “Because African people don’t do that. We come out here just working, just trying to survive.”

Africans are among the fastest growing immigrant populations, with 1.1 million African immigrants living int he U.S. today. Most are from Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Ghana. Africans are the most highly educated immigrant group coming into the country, and 70 percent speak English fluently.

So, why is the lottery ending? When immigration reform was being negotiated, lawmakers who never really liked the lottery program to start with, saw it as a chance to revisit it. One argument is that the lottery is too random, and that may lead to the wrong people coming in to the country, as Republican Senator Bob Goodlatte of Virginia warns.

“Even if technical improvements were made to the visa lottery program, nothing would prevent terrorist organizations or foreign intelligence agencies from having members apply for the program who do not have criminal backgrounds, maybe have recently left one of the madrasas in the Middle East.”

Democrats defended the lottery, and opposed a new merit-based point system that ranks immigrants by how educated they are, with priority given to STEM fields. The more points you have, the bigger your chance of getting into the country is. Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez was one of the most impassioned critics of this new system. He says that it is simply un-American. He this it is just un-American.

“Imagine if those millions who came through Ellis Island were given a test if they arrived. If they were gifted in science and math, they were in. If they were simply a hard working man or woman in search or a better life, they wouldn’t have been good enough under this bill! Think about it! Where would we all be if we had to pass that test?”

The NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus also fought for the lottery visa, as one of the primary ways Africans migrate to the US. Eritrean immigrant Nunu Kidane heads the Oakland-based advocacy group, Priority Africa. She says that those in her community cannot help but feel like the new system is discouraging and unwelcoming.

“It really triggers I think a sense that this country—which has always has itself portrayed as open and accessible—is shutting yet another door down.” 

A 2010 study showed that the African diaspora sent home 58 billion dollars in remittances—more than the Western aid money the continent received that year.

“When people receive notice that they have been selected for a diversity visa, it is incredibly transformative,” Kidane says. “It’s not just to that individual, but to an entire family and an entire community, because we now see that this person, having this opportunity to go to the U.S. means that the likelihood of that community benefiting is significant.”  

Another, more sensitive, part of this conversation is that, while the Diversity Visa was eliminated, another visa was increased—the H1-B skilled worker visa. This is a temporary work visa, but those who hold it may then apply for a Green Card with the support of an employer. Advocates from Silicon Valley tech giants Facebook, Google, Intel, HP and others lobbied Congress for more of these visas, which could help them bring in more talent from outside the country. That has Congolese immigrant Clementine Intaikala, feeling suspicious.

“So exactly what are we saying here? I mean it hasn’t been spelled out, but if we were to eliminate the Diversity Visa, where do you think those 50,000 visas that we’ve been issuing for years will go?,” Intaikala asks. “It’s more like, ‘We need tech workers to fill the jobs that are available’—yes, but we can’t sacrifice one group for the benefit of another group!”

Kidane says these are important questions, and it is not just about immigration. 

“It’s about how we approach the social—having a balanced social makeup, because immigration, it has been said, is a form of social engineering, right? Who you allow to come into the U.S. determines the makeup of the nation for generations to come. That’s why it’s highly disputed,because there’s the realization that this country is no longer mirroring the image that people had assumed it had.”

Sodgy braids her clients’ hair, she, like many Africans I spoke to, worries about America’s changing immigration policy. It seems to be moving from, “Give me your tired, your weak, your huddled masses,” to, “Give me your workers who have Master’s Degrees.”

“To me, it looks like they’re singling out Africans—for what reason? I don’t know,” Sodgy says. “But I don’t think that it’s fair. They should give everybody a chance, because that’s what America is known for—for equal opportunity for everybody.”

This is the last year to apply for a Diversity Visa. As of 2015, the quarter century old program will be no more.

To listen to this story, please click the audio player above.

Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.