Francis Nkam was happy in Cameroon. He had gone to college, had gotten his bachelor’s degree in education and was teaching high school.
But greater opportunity called in America, and rather than spend the money on a visa application, Nkam entered the visa lottery.
“Each time we played the Diversity Visa Lottery, we played in a group of five or six people,” he recalled. “And each time someone would win. And I kept saying my time would come.”
Come it did. On his seventh try, Nkam won a visa, and he immigrated to the U.S. in 2003. Not long after, he landed a job as a high school French teacher in southern New Jersey, got two master’s degrees from Rutgers, married a woman from Cameroon and is expecting his first child later this year.
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Supporters of the Diversity Visa Program say it opens up pathways for people such as Nkam from underrepresented countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean countries. Critics, though, say it’s rampant with fraud in the application process. Now the program is in danger of being eliminated, as the Senate killed it in its recent immigration overhaul and a similar fate awaits it in the House of Representatives. The House already voted to cancel the program last November.
Part of the Immigration Act of 1990, the Diversity Visa Program was intended to create new avenues for residents of countries that were underrepresented in America’s immigration melting pot, offering permanent resident visas to 50,000 lucky winners each year. Natives of countries with fewer than 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. over the past five years are eligible for entry. Each year, based on immigration data, countries are added or removed from the lottery-eligible list.
Prospective immigrants must have at least high school diplomas or the equivalent or a minimum of two years of work experience in fields that require training. The application process opens for one month, with a strict limit of one entry per applicant. More than 14 million applied in 2012.
As recently as last year, the program displayed crucial weaknesses. Faulty programming led false results of the 2012 lottery to be posted online, informing many prospective immigrants that they’d been selected for green cards when they had not been. Fraudulent third-party organizations have coerced cash from immigrant-hopefuls with promises that they have sway with lottery officials. Security officials and lawmakers have suggested that the program threatens national security, citing the difficulties of performing background checks in many eligible countries and the acceptance of applicants from state sponsors of terrorism.
Despite the criticisms, the program has supporters in Congress. The Congressional Black Caucus backs Nkam’s claim that the visa lottery is one of the few paths to permanent American citizenship for sub-Saharan Africa natives.
While the odds of being selected are poor, winners from Cameroon said an entry in the lottery had far better chances than formal visa applications.
“I don’t know of anybody who came through any other means,” Nkam said. The U.S. Embassy “has about a 1 percent visa-granting rate. For every 1,000 people who actually apply for a visa, you’ll be lucky if 10 people from that number get a visa. That is almost impossible.”
The free entry of the lottery provides opportunities for those who don’t wish to apply formally. But therein is the most long-standing argument against the program: It hands out, largely based on luck, 50,000 permanent resident visas every year while family members of U.S. residents and prospective employees wait in queues up to 24 years for the same benefit. With the backlogged visa list multiplying continuously, wait times aren’t expected to drop anytime soon.
The lottery “programs cannot be justified given all the more compelling, competing demands for the limited number of green cards that we can make available,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a June announcement.
Supporters of the program say it’s not the lottery itself that matters but rather the goal of open pathways for underrepresented demographics.
“I think that our bigger concern is not so much a lottery, but our bigger concern is to ensure that people from underserved countries – Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean – are included in what is called a comprehensive immigration bill,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “And I don’t know what form that is going to take, but if there is some language that allows that to happen, then I’m favorable to it.”
The House is expected to take up discussions on immigration Wednesday in a closed-door meeting.