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Diversity Visas Lost to Travel Bans
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Tens of thousands of diversity visa winners may lose their once-in-a-lifetime chance to immigrate to the U.S., unless Congress acts

Tens of thousands of aspiring immigrants who were selected by the U.S. government to receive diversity visas have been unable to secure this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because of travel bans and the global suspension of visa services during the COVID-19 global pandemic. Representatives Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and Judy Chu (D-CA) have introduced the Keeping Our Promise Act (H.R. 3584) to allow diversity visa winners to maintain their eligibility and secure the green cards as authorized by Congress.

"The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program provides individuals from countries with relatively lower levels of recent immigration to the United States an opportunity to apply for a visa and permanent residency."

The Diversity Visa Program welcomes immigrants from underrepresented countries

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program provides individuals from countries with relatively lower levels of recent immigration to the United States an opportunity to apply for a visa and permanent residency (a green card).1

About 50,000 diversity visas are typically issued each year.2 Because of the substantial interest in the program—more than 8 million people applied in FY 2020, the last full year before the pandemic3—prospective applicants are selected using a randomized lottery and invited to formally apply for the visa if abroad, or to file an adjustment of status application if residing in the U.S.

To qualify for the Diversity Visa Program, applicants must generally have been born in a qualifying country.4 Applicants must also have completed a high school education or its equivalent, or, within five years of applying, have two years of work experience in a job that requires at least two years of training or experience.

Once an individual is selected to apply, individuals must pass rigorous criminal and security background checks, submit evidence verifying their education and/or work experience, complete an interview with a government officer, and be generally admissible under immigration law. Most importantly, applicants must receive their visas and enter the country (or adjust status from within the U.S.) before the end of the fiscal year; if they do not, they lose their eligibility and need to enter the lottery again.

Approximately 21,000 individuals have been denied diversity visas under these bans; however, thousands more were likely never formally denied.
"Thousands around world still plagued by impact of Trump Muslim ban, says N.Y. Rep. Ritchie Torres," NY Daily News

Many Diversity Visa Selectees Have Been Barred from Immigrating

Despite meeting all statutory requirements, many aspiring immigrants have been unable to receive visas because they were barred by Executive Orders temporarily restricting immigration, including President Trump’s various travel bans5 and the March 2020 ban on virtually all permanent immigration.

While the Biden Administration has rescinded the travel bans and the immigrant visa ban, thousands of individuals selected for diversity visas have been prevented from receiving their visas and making their move to the United States. And the Biden Administration did not include diversity visa selectees in the groups allowed to reapply after the rescission of the bans.

According to Representative Ritchie Torres (D-NY), approximately 21,000 diversity visa selectees have been denied visas under these bans; however, thousands more were likely never formally denied, because of consular closures and news of the bans deterring individuals from applying in the first place.6

"The Keeping Our Promise Act would allow continued eligibility for individuals and their families who were selected to apply for diversity visas, but were denied under the travel bans"
The Keeping Our Promise Act (H.R. 3548) Sponsored by Representatives Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and Judy Chu (D-CA)

Congress should ensure that Diversity Visa selectees are able to receive their visas

Because current law prevents the State Department from issuing visas after the end of the fiscal year, Congress will need to pass legislation to ensure that qualifying diversity visa selectees who were not able to secure their visas and travel to the U.S. before the end of the fiscal year (through no fault of their own) can receive their visas even after the fiscal year statutory cut-off.

Representatives Torres and Judy Chu (D-CA) have introduced the Keeping Our Promise Act (H.R. 3548) to allow continued eligibility for individuals and their families who were selected to apply for diversity visas in FYs 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, or 2021, but were either denied visas under the various travel bans, or were unable to receive a visa interview because of COVID-19 closures. Portions of this legislation were recently included in the FY 2022 Homeland Security Appropriations bill that passed out of committee, signaling early Congressional support.

Eligible selectees would have an additional year to notify the government of their intent to proceed with their application, and would maintain their eligibility until they receive their visa (or until they decide to abandon the process or are denied a visa on some other grounds).

This legislation would not add to the number of people eligible for a visa, nor would it affect any requirements for background checks or admissibility. It would simply ensure that temporary restrictions on travel do not permanently prevent qualified individuals from coming to the United States, and ensure that individuals who were selected to receive a diversity visa can actually do so.

In addition to preserving eligibility, Congress could also recapture green cards for diversity visa winners that have gone unused in previous years, similar to proposals to recapture unused employment-based and family-based green cards, to make sure that the full allotment of diversity visas is ultimately issued.

Congress must act soon

The 2021 fiscal year ends in September. Time is running out for diversity visa winners to receive their visas, enter the United States, and secure the once-in-a-lifetime green cards they have been awarded. Many thousands of winners from previous years have already lost out on their chance.

The Diversity Visa Program helps preserve diversity and promotes equitable opportunity in the U.S. immigration system. Research has shown that diversity is good for the economy, associated with increases in wages and productivity for U.S.-born workers. Analysis from the Niskanen Center shows that diversity visa recipients are ready to succeed in the U.S., generally having higher educational attainment than other immigrants and native-born Americans, as well as higher English proficiency than other immigrant groups.

Permanently barring diversity visa winners from getting their green cards because of temporary restrictions on travel is unfair to them and their families, and undermines the integrity of our immigration system. Now that these bans have been lifted, Congress should act to make sure that these individuals are allowed their opportunity to immigrate. Over the long run, Congress should expand and modernize the immigration system so individuals from around the world have an opportunity to contribute to America’s diversity, economy, and future.

Get in touch with us:

Andrew Moriarty

Deputy Director of Federal Policy

  1. Some lottery winners may already reside in the U.S., in which case, based on their lottery selection, they would be eligible to adjust their status and get a green card, without having to apply for a visa abroad.
  2. The statutory annual cap for the Diversity Visa Program is 55,000. However, up to 5,000 of these visas have been set aside annually since 1999 as part of the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), setting the effective diversity visa cap at 50,000.
  3. Individuals may also be eligible to apply if their spouse is from a qualifying country (if married before submitting the lottery entry), or if their parents were from a qualifying country, as long as neither parent was born in or resided in the applicant’s nonqualifying country of birth.
  4. As of January 2021, more than 90,000 individuals have been denied entry to the U.S. because of the travel bans,13,000 of whom were applying for green cards.
  5. More than 24,000 diversity visa selectees for FY 2021 are suing the government to maintain their eligibility, and thousands more from the FY 2020 selection have likely lost their chances forever. In February 2021, a federal judge issued an emergency injunction allowing most diversity visa applicants who were unable to enter by the deadline to maintain their eligibility and travel immediately to the U.S., though ongoing restrictions and office closures may still make it impossible for some diversity visa selectees to actually receive their visa.
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