Diversity visa scheme was set up with the Irish and Italians very much in mind. 

If Johnny in Donegal and Mary in Cork wake up some morning and get the idea that they want to start a new life in America there really is only one way they can go about the task legally.

And that is throw their name in the hat for the annual Diversity Visa lottery, a kind of hybrid immigration vehicle that has been around for more than twenty years though, if some in Washington have their way, not for much longer.

The diversity visa scheme was born in 1990 very much with the Irish in mind. It was also a nod to Italian Americans.

In an Irish context, the program emerged as a kind of follow on from the Donnelly Visa program of the mid 1980s, which had been Irish America’s assist at a time when the number of undocumented Irish in the U.S. was soaring – this in large part to the virtual exclusion of the Irish as a result of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

Read more: Anti-American countries get far more green cards than than the Irish do

At first it looked promising.

Legislation authorizing the lottery was primarily the work of Charles Schumer, at the time a member of the House of Representatives.

Chuck Schumer.

Chuck Schumer.

It had bipartisan support in Congress and was formally signed into the nation’s immigration law by President George H W Bush as a component of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1990, the legislation that also delivered the Morrison Visas.

The diversity lottery did not actually kick-in until the 1995 fiscal year, which opened on October 1, 1994.

In the early years the program, commonly referred to as the “green card lottery,” seemed to work well enough.

Read more: How hard is it for Irish people to come to America today?

50,000 visas were set aside annually for countries that sent relatively low numbers of immigrants to the U.S. each year.

Ireland was one of those countries, and that meant the entire island, Northern Ireland being cleaved off from the rest of the United Kingdom which was excluded as a result of the Great Britain part exceeding the low number limit.

A separate allocation of 5,000 visas a year was set aside for El Salvador, which was experiencing a period of bloody strife.

A US visa.

A US visa.

During the 1990s the Irish view of the green card lottery was generally positive, any potential discontent being ameliorated by the fact that the Donnelly and Morrison Visa programs were allowing more Irish to secure a legal life in America.

As the New York Times put it in a report on Thursday: “In its early years, most winners were European…”

And not just European.

Ciaran Staunton, co-founder of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, points to a response that ILIR often received in its early years of campaigning, most especially from Republican legislators.

“They would say to us that we already had what they referred to as the ‘Irish visas,’” he said.

Whatever the diversity visas were called, the arrival of the Celtic Tiger economy in Ireland actually drew some green card holders eastward across the Atlantic, even as it provided more jobs to those who might otherwise have crossed that same expanse of water westward to the U.S.

At the same time, tens of thousands of undocumented Irish remained stranded in America having missed out on the Donnellys, Morrisons, Berman Visas and the diversity green cards because, in a cruel irony, they were stuck on the wrong side of the ocean.

As each year rolled into the next, the competition for the 50,000 annual diversity green cards became keener.

The number of annual applicants soared and they were applying from what seemed to be an ever expanding list of countries – though what was actually happening was that more people around the world were simply becoming aware of the lottery.

Image: iStock.

Image: iStock.

The total number of winners of 2007 diversity visas from the Republic of Ireland, for example, stood at just 160. The separate tally for Northern Ireland was just 42.

This would be a typical tally in the years that followed.

In 2010, the number was a virtual match for ’07 with 167 and 31 for the Republic and North respectively.

That was the year that Sayfullo Saipov from Uzbekistan got his diversity green card along with 4058 fellow Uzbeks.

Saipov’s deadly terror attack in Manhattan last week opened up a new line of attack on the diversity program which, in truth, has been targeted for elimination on a virtual rolling basis since 9/11.

Virtually every year since 2001 has contained a jab or an assault against the diversity lottery.

In the summer of 2005, for example, two at-odds immigration bills took form in the U.S. Senate.

One was the work of Senators John Cornyn and Jon Kyl, both Republicans, who jointly crafted a bill that proposed to scrap what was described in an Echo report at the time as “the Schumer scheme.”

The Cornyn/Kyl proposal was called the “Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act of 2005.”

The luck of the draw. Image: iStock.

The luck of the draw. Image: iStock.

On the other side of the argument was the bipartisan and fresh off the presses McCain/Kennedy bill, the “Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005.”

Senator Edward Kennedy said at the time that while changes to immigration law was “inevitable” he would push for the diversity visa program to be maintained.

“There is a very substantial and legitimate reason for the diversity visas, especially at this time,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy’s argument won out.

That was then and this is now.

A bill currently before the U.S. Senate, the so-called “Raise Act,” proposes to eliminate the lottery while cutting legal immigration in half.

That’s an attack based in a desire to fundamentally change U.S. immigration law that is widely shared in the majority Republican Party in both houses of Congress.

Saipov’s rampage unleashed a newer kind of attack on the visas sourced more in anger and fear of terrorism.

The attack was led by President Trump who labeled the diversity program “a Chuck Schumer beauty.”

Ironically, again, Schumer, as a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” supported elimination of the lottery in the immigration reform package passed by the Senate, with him in a front line leadership role, back in 2013.

“To accomplish the move to a more merit-based immigration system, we eliminate certain categories of family preferences that have allowed for chain migration and completely eliminate the diversity visa lottery, among other reforms,” said a statement from Gang of Eight member Senator Marco Rubio at that time.

That Senate bill would die in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, though not as a result of a mass rush by members to save Schumer’s “beauty.”

Last week, after swiping at Schumer, President Trump further stated: “I am today starting the process of terminating the diversity lottery program. Diversity lottery. Sounds nice. It’s not good. It’s not good. It hasn’t been good. We’ve been against it.”

Though he may think he is “starting the process” it is actually up to Congress to make any changes in immigration law, including any repeal of the green card lottery.

The Raise Act, designated S.354, is co-sponsored by GOP Senators Tom Cotton from Arkansas and David Perdue from Georgia.

Their bill, as it states in its opening lines, is intended to “amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to eliminate the Diversity Visa Program, to limit the President’s discretion in setting the number of refugees admitted annually to the United States, to reduce the number of family-sponsored immigrants, to create a new nonimmigrant classification for the parents of adult United States citizens, and for other purposes.”

To its supporters, and there are still supporters, the fact that the Diversity Visa Program is top of that hit list stands as something of a back-handed compliment.

But the Raise Act is a serious and potentially fatal assault on the green card lottery, though again with irony in mind, it might meet with opposition in the Senate by a reconstituted bipartisan gang of undetermined number that might take umbrage at the effort to halve legal immigration.

So the Diversity Green Card lottery – lately not just unloved, but lambasted – might yet survive by default, and this will be undoubtedly welcomed in many countries around the globe.

But if it doesn’t, there might not be all that many Irish tears shed.

“The ending of the Green Card Lottery/Diversity visa Program will not be a loss to the Irish community,” said ILIR’s Ciaran Staunton.

By “loss,” Staunton wasn’t thinking in terms of diversity per se, but rather in the raw numbers of those putative “Irish visas.”

What are you thoughts on the US diversity visa lottery? Are you for or against or would you prefer to see a different immigration system in place? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.