U.S. immigration overhaul may wall off pathway from Africa, Caribbean


McClatchy Washington Bureau

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.

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.

Email: watkins@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @alimariewatkins

Read more Politics Wires stories from the Miami Herald

This photo taken Dec. 21, 2012 photo Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Cal., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference in Washington. Sunday in Washington, Aug. 31, 2014, Feinstein said President Barack Obama may be "too cautious" in his approach to dealing with Islamic State militants. Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" she said that the Defense and State departments have been putting together a response to the threat, and has seen nothing to compare to the viciousness of the militants who have overrun large portions of Iraq, killed civilians and beheaded American journalist James Foley. Feinstein says the Islamic State group has financing, military structure and weapons unlike any other militants and called them "extraordinarily dangerous."

    Lawmakers: Islamic State groups wants to hit US

    Cities in the United States and Western Europe are being eyed as Islamic State militants' future targets and President Barack Obama needs to take action, U.S. lawmakers say.

FILE - In this Sept. 6, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama greets supporters before speaking on the economy at the Milwaukee Laborfest in Henry Maier Festival Park in Milwaukee. The last time President Barack Obama came to Wisconsin to celebrate workers' rights on Labor Day, there was barely a hint of the turmoil that was to come just months later as public employees fought unsuccessfully to retain their ability to collectively bargain. Now, four years later, as the architect of the law that stripped unions of that power faces re-election, Obama is coming back to Milwaukee for an event also featuring Gov. Scott Walker's Democratic challenger Mary Burke.

    Obama promoting economic gains as elections near

    Boosted by recent economic gains, President Barack Obama is sounding more bullish about the nation's recovery from the Great Recession and the White House is encouraging Democrats to show similar optimism as they head into the November mid-term elections.

This June 18, 2014 file photo shows Iowa Democratic Senate candidate, Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington. The first midterm elections since both parties embraced a historic change in campaign finance, and with it a sea of campaign cash, will mean for most voters an avalanche of television ads trying to reach the few able to be swayed and willing to vote. In the nation's closest races for U.S. Senate, that translates into "price per vote" that could easily double what was spent in the 2012 presidential election.

    Brace yourselves: Campaign cash buying tons of ads

    Iowa's airwaves are already jammed with political ads, most of them negative, in one of the Senate races nationwide that will decide which party claims the majority.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category