Resisting Trump’s call to eliminate “green card lottery” 11.01.2017

On the heels of the recent, shocking attack by a radical Uzbek Muslim in New York City, President Trump is calling for an end to the diversity visa immigrant lottery, and for strengthening of a merit-based U.S. immigration law system.

We grieve for the victims, as we ponder solutions to extremist violence, Muslim-inspired and otherwise. As we search for solace and for answers, let us be careful not to assign blame too quickly.

Despite the president’s charge, the “visa lottery” is irrelevant to yesterday’s tragedy, for several reasons. Let’s start with what it is -- it’s simply a way to offer “unused” or “leftover” immigrant visas -- “green cards” -- to people from countries with low visa demand. Successful applicants undergo the same screening procedures as other intending immigrants. (These procedures are, incidentally, not as stringent as those for intending refugees and other asylum-seekers.) The visa lottery was created by law, by Congress, over 25 years ago. It will take Congress to revise or repeal the law; it cannot be done by presidential fiat.

In any event, it seems a cheap shot for Mr. Trump to take, to infer that the visa lottery is a security risk. It is also strains credibility, as Mr. Trump has claimed, that the Uzbek killer was responsible for a “chain migration” of some 23 individuals. But we will let time, and the fact-checkers, reveal the truth.

In fairness, I believe the appeal of Mr. Trump’s argument -- in pointing a finger at the visa lottery program as an ostensible culprit in this latest strategy -- is that it makes no sense to give away chances to permanent residence, when these spots -- 50,000 per year -- could be filled by more deserving candidates, presumably to be employed by willing U.S. employers. And to this extent, perhaps the president is correct; it would seem to be a more productive use of the empty visa “slots” to offer them to eager workers. (Yet it is oddly out of tune with his usual pitch, that we need to protect jobs for Americans, but consistency is not Mr. Trump’s strong suit.)

I understand the second part of Mr. Trump’s statement to mean that it is in our best interests to focus on merit-based immigration. And I agree, that the present system restricts American employers from legally hiring capable foreign workers. Why not “document ‘em” as President Reagan once urged, and create a viable guest-worker program, if we can do that while protecting American workers? A guest-worker program would benefit everyone, if it were designed with safeguards -- such as requiring an employer to first attempt to recruit qualified U.S. workers, as is done with the “H-2A” (agricultural) and “H-2B” (non-agricultural) seasonal-worker visas.

For year-round temporary employment, the U.S. immigration system does offer the “H-1B” work visa for professionals -- that is for “specialty occupations” which require a university degree in an appropriate field of study -- but it has its own limitations. Specifically, the “H-1B” comes with a numerical “cap” that is unrealistically low, relative to the demand by U.S. employers. Each year, the IT industry grabs a disproportionate share of the allotment, with tens of thousands of applications edging out many deserving small-business would-be employers and their candidates. I believe an internal ceiling of say, ⅔ of the total allocation for IT positions -- or a per-employer allotment -- would give other American employers a fairer chance to hire whom they wish. As with my proposal for a guest-worker program, other revisions could be considered to ensure that qualified American workers are not overlooked.

We live in complex, challenging times, characterized by fragmenting economic alliances, environmental deterioration, political and economic opportunism, and ideological extremism. As we proceed cautiously, and with vigilance, to strengthen and protect our nation, we would do well to re-examine our immigration law system. But let us be mindful of our national motto, that “out of many, we are one.”