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What is the Diversity Visa Program?
5 Things to Know

The Diversity Visa Program provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for individuals from countries with relatively lower levels of immigration to the United States to secure a green card and build a future in the U.S. This vital program diversifies our immigration system and opens the door to educated, talented, hardworking people from around the world. Congress should protect and strengthen the Diversity Visa Program as part of efforts to modernize and expand the U.S. immigration system.

Tarig Elhakim, 22, a doctor from Sudan, photographed on Thursday April 27, 2017, in Arlington, VA. Elhakim has won the green card lottery, Diversity Visa program, and is currently studying to pass the United States medical licensing exam so that he can work as a doctor here. "I am a doctor right now and this opportunity is going to help me a lot to apply for my residency program. Later on, I am going to try to bring my family here from Sudan so they can build their life here," said Elhakim. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
For many aspiring immigrants, the diversity visa is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pursue the American Dream.

1| What is the Diversity Visa Program?

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).

About 50,000 diversity visas are typically issued each year. In FY 2020, the last full year before the pandemic, more than 8 million registrations were submitted for principal applicants; including spouses and children, more than 11 million people applied for the program. Because of the substantial interest in the program, registered applicants are selected using a randomized lottery and are invited to formally apply for the visa if abroad, or to file an adjustment of status application if residing in the U.S.

The Diversity Visa Program promotes and protects diversity in the U.S. immigration system. This not only extends opportunity to aspiring immigrants around the globe, it also welcomes more diverse talents and contributions to the U.S. economy and communities. For many aspiring immigrants, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pursue the American Dream.

2| Where do diversity visa recipients come from?

Diversity visa recipients come from areas around the world that are underrepresented in other immigration programs. When the program was first established, most diversity immigrants came from European countries; over time, the majority shifted to African countries, while the share from Asia has increased slightly. Latin American and North American countries have represented a small share throughout the program’s existence, in contrast to other immigration programs.

Source: FWD.us analysis of State Department “Report of the Visa Office” for FYs 2001, 2011, and 2020. Regions are defined by the State Department. Note that FY2020 issuances were significantly reduced because of COVID-19.

Since FY 1995, more than 1.2 million diversity visa recipients and their families have been able to immigrate to the United States through the program.

This program has played a particularly important role in facilitating immigration from Africa. Since 1995, the Diversity Visa Program has enabled more than 480,000 individuals and their families from Africa to immigrate to the United States. Since the program started, more diversity immigrants have come from Africa than from any other region and, in recent years, the majority of African immigrants to the United States have come through the Diversity Visa Program.

Diversity visa recipients tend to be well-educated and contribute significantly to the U.S. workforce, as much as immigrants who arrive through other programs

3| How does the Diversity Visa Program benefit America?

The Diversity Visa Program preserves equitable opportunity in the U.S. immigration system and contributes to the rich cultural diversity of the United States. This diversity is a fundamental American value, reflected in the food, music, languages, and perspectives that form the fabric of our communities and our nation. Diversity in our classrooms and workplaces fosters a sense of belonging, promotes fairness by reducing bias, and drives individual and team success.

And research has shown that diversity is good for the economy, associated with increases in wages and productivity for U.S.-born workers. Diversity visa recipients tend to be well-educated and contribute significantly to the U.S. workforce, as much as immigrants who arrive through other programs. Analysis of survey data from the early 2000s shows that diversity visa recipients generally had higher educational attainment than other immigrants and native-born Americans, as well as higher English proficiency than other immigrant groups.

Other analysis of this same data set shows that diversity visa recipients had lower levels of unemployment than most other immigrants, and that they had similar wages, and better wage growth after arriving as well.

"50,000 diversity visas are generally available each year.
Because of the high volume of applications,
a randomized lottery is conducted.

4| How does the Diversity Visa Program work?

Aspiring immigrants can apply for the Diversity Visa Program if they were born in qualifying “low-admission states” from which fewer than 50,000 immigrants originated in the previous five years. The State Department publishes an updated list annually. Individuals generally may also be eligible to apply if their parents or spouse is from a qualifying country.

Diversity visa applicants must have completed a high school education or its equivalent, or have two years of work experience within the previous five years in a job that requires at least two years of training.

Each year, 50,000 diversity visas are generally available. Per-country caps (similar to caps on employment- and family-based visas) further limit the issuance of diversity visas, so that no more than 7% can be issued to individuals from a single country each year.

Because of the high volume of applications, a randomized lottery is conducted to select enough applicants to meet the numerical cap. Once an individual is selected to apply, they must pass rigorous 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. Individuals selected in the lottery can also apply to have their spouses and children accompany them.

All individuals seeking a diversity visa must receive their visas and enter the country (or adjust status from within the U.S.) before the end of the fiscal year in which they are approved; if they do not, they may lose their eligibility.

Since FY 1995, more than 1.2 million diversity visa recipients, as well as their families, have been able to immigrate to the United States through the program.

5| Why did Congress create the Diversity Visa Program?

Congress created the Diversity Visa Program as part of the Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT90) to promote diversity and extend opportunity to individuals from countries and regions underrepresented in recent immigration admissions.

The framework for the modern immigration system was established by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which implemented a “preference system” to prioritize aspiring immigrants with family ties and employment opportunities in the U.S. already. This legislation significantly shaped the demographic makeup of immigration in the decades that followed.

In the late 1980s, Congress experimented with a diversity-based immigration program, in part to address perceived barriers for immigrants from certain countries (primarily Ireland) as a result of the 1965 Act. The Immigration Reform Control Act of 1986 set aside 5,000 visas for “natives of foreign states the immigration of whose natives to the United States was adversely affected by the enactment” of the 1965 Act. This policy was later extended through 1990, and the cap was raised to 15,000 visas, of which Irish immigrants received roughly 40%.

The Diversity Visa Program was in many ways a continuation of this policy, and like the preference system before it, the Diversity Visa Program opened the door to new groups of immigrants from different regions around the world, particularly Africa and Eastern Europe.

Congress should strengthen the Diversity Visa Program, not eliminate it

Despite playing an integral role in the U.S. immigration system, the diversity visa has been a target for immigration restrictionists for years. Legislators proposed eliminating the program as part of the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013, seemingly as an offset for increases in other immigration categories.

And now tens of thousands of Diversity Visa lottery winners are being denied this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because of the Trump Administration’s travel bans.

In truth, the distinct economic and cultural benefits of the program, described above, coupled with the urgent need for the U.S. to increase annual immigration, present a strong case for retaining and strengthening the Diversity Visa Program. As the global competition for top talent heats up, these pathways for passionate, talented people from around the world to contribute to the United States are vital.

Get in touch with us:

Andrew Moriarty

Deputy Director of Federal Policy

  1. Specifically, the State Department first identifies the “high-admission” states as those countries which were the country of origin for at least 50,000 immigrants (including (immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and those sponsored under the family- and employment-based systems) in the previous five years. All other countries are then considered to be “low-admission.”
  2. The statutory annual cap for the Diversity Immigrant 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 , setting the effective diversity visa cap at 50,000.
  3. This was the case in the bipartisan Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744) passed by the Senate in 2013, as well as the Reforming Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act (S. 1720) championed by President Trump in 2017.
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