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May 15, 2023

The Diversity Visa Lottery

In the 1980s undocumented Irish immigrants convinced United States lawmakers to create a program that would provide a path to citizenship for individuals without family connections in the United States. That program eventually became the Diversity Visa Lottery, established as part of the Immigration Act of 1990. Despite the program’s roots in demand from Irish immigrants, the majority of the recipients of diversity visas have been awarded to immigrants from Africa, with more than 480,000 individuals and their families immigrating to the United States from Africa between 1995 and 2022 via the Diversity Visa Program.

Joining me this week for a deep dive into the diversity visa lottery, and its impact on West African countries, is historian Dr. Carly Goodman, Senior Editor at the Washington Posts’s Made by History and author of Dreamland: America’s Immigration Lottery in an Age of Restriction.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The mid-episode music “Melancholic Afrobeat” by artbybigvee from Pixabay and is available in the public domain. The episode image is “Loterie Americaine visa services in French and English in Yaoundé, Cameroon, 2015,” and is used by permission of the photographer, Carly Goodman.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please, tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.

On this week's episode, we're looking at the United States Diversity Visa Lottery. In October, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law, the Immigration and Nationality Act, often called the Hart Celler Act, after its main sponsors. At the time, Johnson remarked, "This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly, to either our wealth or power," but as we've discussed in other episodes, the Hart Celler Act, which removed national origin quotas, in favor of prioritizing family reunification, led to an influx of immigration from Asian countries. Abolishing the national origin quotas, however, limited immigration from Western European countries, which had long benefited from the United States' racially motivated immigration laws. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 1960, 75%, of the total US foreign born population was European. By 2014, Europeans represented just 11% of the US foreign born population. In the 1980s, as the economy in Ireland crumbled, hundreds of thousands of Irish people fled their homeland in search of better opportunities, following the pattern of Irish emigration in the mid 19th century during the potato famine. Although there are many millions of Americans of Irish descent, the Irish fleeing in the 1980s didn't have immediate family living in the United States, and had no path to citizenship when they overstayed their temporary visas. Irish immigrants were hardly alone in their undocumented status, but they were able to find sympathy among politicians in a way that other undocumented immigrants had difficulty accomplishing. In November, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act, also known as the Simpson Mazzoli Act, which set penalties for companies that hired undocumented immigrants, but which at the same time provided amnesty for undocumented immigrants, who had been residing in the United States since before January 1, 1982. Although this provision of law provided a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, it wouldn't help undocumented Irish immigrants, most of whom had come to the United States after January 1, 1982. So Representative Brian Donnelly, a Democrat from Massachusetts, fought for a path for independent immigrants, those without family connections in the United States. He was successful in creating a small program within the Immigration Reform and Control Act, called NP-5, that provided 5000 non preference visas per year for two years, 1987 and 1988, to 36 countries adversely affected in immigration by the 1965 law. The program was wildly popular, and of the 10,000 NP visas, awarded on a first come first served basis, 3112 went to Irish immigrants. However, tens of thousands of Irish immigrants remained undocumented. In 1987, the Irish Immigration Reform Movement, IIRM, founded with the motto to, "legalize the Irish." Congress extended the Donnelly Visa Program, providing an additional 15,000 visas in 1989 and 1990, a testament to the work of the IIRM, but it was still a temporary stopgap measure. In 1989, Representative Howard L. Berman, a Democrat from California, designed the OP-1 Immigrant Visa Program, also known as the Berman Diversity Program. Unlike the Donnelly Visa Program, the Berman program was open to applicants from 162 countries, those countries who had sent fewer than 5000 immigrants in the prior year. In this program, each applicant could submit only one application between March 1 and March 31, and 20,000 winners were selected via lottery. In November, 1990, President George HW Bush signed into law the Immigration Act of 1990, first introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts. The 1990 Act had several provisions, including the creation of the "temporary protected status" or TPS, a program for migrants from countries that are designated as unsafe, usually because of war or environmental disaster. Currently, there are 28 eligible countries on the TPS list. The 1990 Act also increased total immigration and established a permanent visa lottery that would start in 1995. Before the permanent visa lottery began, a three year transitional lottery ran, known as the Morrison Visa Program, after Bruce Morrison, a Democrat from Connecticut, the author of the 1990 bill. In the Morrison Visa Program, 40,000 visas a year were available to immigrants from the countries adversely affected by the 1965 law, with a full 40% of those reserved for immigrants from, "the foreign state, the natives of which received the greatest number of visas issued under Section 314 of the Immigrant Reform and Control Act." In other words, 40% of the 120,000 total visas over three years would go to Irish immigrants, which served to meet the demand from undocumented Irish immigrants in the United States. The IIRM had achieved its goal. Beginning in 1995, applicants from all over the globe could apply to the permanent visa lottery. The only requirements were that the applicant had graduated from high school or had the equivalent work experience. There was no cost to apply. The program makes 55,000 immigrant visas per year, available to citizens of countries with low immigration rates. Ineligible countries are those who have sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the previous five years. Despite the visa lottery's roots and demand from Irish immigrants, the majority of the recipients of diversity visas have been awarded to immigrants from Africa, with more than 480,000 individuals and their families, immigrating to the United States from Africa between 1995 and 2022 via the Diversity Visa Program. Joining me now for a deep dive into the Diversity Visa Lottery, and its impact on West African countries, is historian and senior editor of The Washington Post's "Made by History," Dr. Carly Goodman, author of, "Dreamland: America's Immigration Lottery in an Age of Restriction."

Hi, Carly. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Dr. Carly Goodman  10:26  
Hi, Kelly, thanks so much for having me.

Kelly Therese Pollock  10:28  
Yes, I am super excited to talk about this book. I want to start by asking just how you first got interested in this topic how, you came to write this book.

Dr. Carly Goodman  10:41  
Yes, I've become the sort of the whisperer of the Diversity Visa Lottery. But there was a time where I didn't know what it was either, and that time was, gosh, it's getting to be a lot of years ago now. In 2011, my husband and I, well, boyfriend at the time, were traveling in West Africa after our first year of graduate school. And we had this sense that like, grownup life was just gonna get harder and harder, so having a summer where we could really take a trip, we should really take advantage of that. And his aunt had actually retired to Ghana, and was living in a house on a hill in Cape Coast, Ghana. And she said, "Come and visit. I have a room. Come see, you know, Ghana," this country that she loved, that she had been visiting since she was young, with her own Peace Corps volunteer husband, my husband's uncle. So they had always planned to retire and she was able to retire there. And we got to go and visit and decided to travel around and see as much as we could. So we would go into internet cafes, to send emails back home to assure our parents that we were doing just fine. And at those internet cafes, people were searching for information about this American green card lottery. And I looked at my husband, who is, he's now an immigration attorney, but we had been working at a human rights, nonprofit Human Rights First and talking to asylum seekers for for the years preceding graduate school, and knew a lot about immigration policy and law, but had never heard of the Diversity Visa Lottery. And I just thought it was interesting, right? It's like a US policy that looms really large in people's imaginations and in sort of how people are engaging with and thinking about and imagining the United States in these places, like far outside the United States, but it's almost invisible here within the United States. And so I wanted to learn more about it and get at the heart of that contradiction. And that was the beginning of the project. So I wrote a seminar paper in graduate school in Beth Bailey's seminar, and have been sort of searching for answers and generating new questions about the visa lottery ever since.

Kelly Therese Pollock  13:02  
So talk to me about the research and the sources that you're using. Because you're, you're looking both at sort of the US government position on this and the history of how it came to be, but then also how it's very clearly affecting people in especially in Ghana, and Nigeria and Cameroon. So talk to me about all the other ways you had to go to find this information.

Dr. Carly Goodman  13:26  
Yes, and I hope I brought it together, because I saw it all as one story, not a story that I could tell in a very linear manner. But I really didn't think that I could tell just a piece of the story. So the policy itself doesn't tell the whole story, but nor does what I was encountering in these cyber cafes in West Africa. So I started to look into the origins, and I spend the first part of the book on the origins. The second part of the book is sort of its operation and sort of how it creates these moments of encounter and imagination in these West African countries. And then the third part of the book comes back to kind of a US story, but it brings in sort of some of these histories of neoliberalism brings it back to the US context, and also returns to the role of policy in the US. And I tried to, to weave it all together and to make sense of it all. So I think it's important that I did start in West Africa. So the origin of my discovery, my discovery of this policy, or my the way that it came into my life took place over there. So that's where that's where I started with my questions in my imagination is trying to contextualize the lottery and and its role in the world from outside the United States. I looked at newspapers from Nigeria and Ghana that I could find on microfilm at first, but I also went back to Ghana, as well as traveling to Cameroon, to interview people and to sit in these cafes and see how it all worked, and also look at a lot more newspapers, in university libraries and National Archives in those countries. So that was sort of where my where, like the heart of the story really is. But I also thought it was very important to understand how did this policy which is sort of it's like a small part of a very large and complex and changing system, how does it fit in with the history of US immigration policy? What was going on in the 1980s, when Congress was really compared to what we've seen in the subsequent decades, actively creating immigration policy, you know, from the Refugee Act of 1980, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and then this Immigration Act of 1990, of which the Diversity Visa Lottery is a part. There's a lot going on, and a lot was shifting in terms of how policymakers were thinking about immigration as policy, but also as politics. So then I go back to the story of, well, well, you know, we always we historians, we're always like, "Well, let's go back." And I could say, "Let me tell you about the Immigration Act of 1990. And, well, I'm gonna have to start in 1965. And then when I tell you about 1965, I have to go back to 1924." But I guess I start the book in the 1980s, and that's a pretty good place to start, because the origins of the program are pretty surprising. And they were surprising to the, to the folks that I was talking to in West Africa, because, you know, I asked them what they thought the purpose of the lottery was. And they would say things like, not speaking as a monolith or anything, but they would say things like, "This is a good development program for Africans. This is a policy that makes visas available to Africans." Well, the origin story is that there were a number of unauthorized Irish immigrants living in the United States, finding that they didn't have access to legal visas, they couldn't find ways to adjust their status readily. And this felt like a pretty this felt like an injustice, not only because they were sort of suffering the effects of being out of status, and being perhaps under under scrutiny, for not having their work authorizations and not having legal status in the country. But they were also feeling that, you know, Irish immigration was such a storied and important part of the American story. So why weren't there visas available to them? They were no different from their own grandparents, who had had to make the journey across the ocean and set up and build new lives in the United States. What about what about the Irish of the 1980s, who were feeling, due to economic circumstances that they really had to do the same? So there's a, I tell the story in the book of the way that these unauthorized Irish immigrants organized themselves and went to Washington and lobbied for the creation of visas that would serve them, that would help them adjust their status. And they framed themselves in a couple of different ways. And I tried to sort of follow the story of how they're adjusting their framing and their strategies to sort of suit, suit the moment and have a say in what the legislation winds up looking like. But they talk about Irish contributions. So they're sort of listing the importance of Irish immigrant contributions to what it means to be an American. But then they also tell the story of that 19th century immigration from Europe. And they're kind of setting up and tapping into what policymakers imagine of that era, that these were brave people who picked up with nothing right and set off to a new country to build a new life, something that people in this debate and at the time, it's resonant because they they imagine that like, that's what gives America it's kind of like miraculous energy is like the energy that newcomers have brought, to work hard, to imagine new futures, to provide for their families, to build institutions. And so they conceptualize this idea of the independent immigrant. Now after 1965, a lot of the legal immigration system, the admission system, is really grounded in this concept of family unification. So US citizens can petition for their relatives to join them as legal immigrants in the United States. And so we have this sort of very family based system. The Irish say, "Well, what about what about the independent immigrant," the one who wants to just pick up and start a new life because you know, she's a dreamer, because she has all these capacities that she can't put to good use in her home country, and America is imagined as this place where, where she could?

Kelly Therese Pollock  20:02  
Yeah, it's I'm a child of the 80s. And you know, I very much remember the 80s being a time when everyone was like, "melting pot, and everyone comes here." It makes a certain amount of sense reading back on it that yeah, of course, like that was the time that this kind of thing would have come into being. I want to ask about that a little bit, though, it's so interesting to read a history book that is largely situated within my own lifetime, you know, and so, it's, it's really, fairly for history, a fairly modern story. So can you talk a little bit about that, because, you know, so much of what is written in history is really much older, you know, it's like history can't, you know, be past the seventies or something, you know. So, talk to me a little bit about that, and the what, what you can do as a historian in telling these stories.

Dr. Carly Goodman  20:53  
It's a great question. I'm not sure I'm gonna approach it with any eloquence because if the visa lottery had been invented 50 years earlier, I would have written a very different history. But I actually think it's, it's absolutely time for histories of the 90s. And I think we're seeing more of it. If you go back and and read like histories of the Vietnam War, they were coming out, you know, 20 years, hence, or 15 years hence. So it's, it's actually, you know, it's not so crazy. And I'm sorry to tell you that 1990 was thirty-three years ago, but no, it's my lifetime too. I'm sorry to tell us all. When I was starting to look for histories of this period, when I started the project, which is now like 12 years ago, I wasn't finding much, but I am seeing a lot more histories of this period, you know, Nicole Hemmer, Lily Geismer's book about the Democratic Party. So there's there is a lot more of it now than there was then. Oh, I think you're wrong about the podcast has done a great deal to push us to historicize the 90s and the, the wronged women of the 1990s. So I just think it's time. But we do have problems with sources, we do have, like, you know, questions that we have to ask, when we do contemporary history. We have sort of an overabundance of sources in some ways. I just tried to treat all of the people in the book with the respect and dignity that I think all historians try to bring to their to their work and to try to really understand and to capture these moments. And it is different to look at them, as you know, a grown up rather than like a teen, even though I do joke that I just want to be like in the in the 90s. I just want to hang out and listen to my tapes on my on my car stereo, and have the internet be something that I check when I get home and dial up very slowly. I would say that actually where I felt that my training as a historian really helped me was in thinking about how I changed my thinking on the visa lottery between ending the dissertation, which I finished in 2016, and then writing this book. And writing a book off the tenure track means that you have to really kind of want to write a book. There's sort of no reward for it. Other than sort of, I don't, I don't know what the rewards of it are I so far, my family is intact, and like, and everything's going great. But I realized, after I finished that a new sort of a new historical era opened up right after I finished in the spring of 2016, because we had the launch of President Trump's campaign, and then the Trump presidency. And suddenly all eyes were on immigration policy and nativism. And, and so I felt for a moment like, "Oh, I should really hurry up and write an immigration policy book, because people are actually paying attention to this." You know, people who like, had not been interested at all before were suddenly paying attention to it and seem to care about it, and seem to be rallying around it for you know, in both positive ways, and also very, very dark ways. And so it really seemed like the moment and for many reasons, not least of which is having two small children and full time jobs, I did not get a book out during the Trump era. But I realized as the Biden era dawned, that it was really essential that I lived through that transition to write this book, because it would be too easy to sort of write in the in the thick of the Trump moment, without realizing what kinds of like continuities would persist beyond beyond his presidency. So that actually was very helpful and it helped me see how essential the visa lottery is in kind of a new way.

Kelly Therese Pollock  24:59  
I want to talk about the way in you said, you know, this is what brought you into the story in the first place, but the way the visa lottery is seen in these African countries, especially that ended up sending a lot of people through the program, and really in some ways, the sometimes the positive effects it has back, too, in places like Ghana and Nigeria. So can you talk a little bit about that, the way the way it is viewed and the way that by extension, the United States is viewed because the visa lottery exists?

Dr. Carly Goodman  25:33  
Yes. So I think that immigration is a really positive thing for the United States. I see it in my neighborhood, I think that we should be more welcoming. I think these sort of hardening walls and slamming of the gates are deeply detrimental to our communities, and to sort of hope for building any kind of, you know, inclusive place where we can all thrive. There's, you know, tons of data about what a positive thing immigration is. And I could be, you know, breaking down all of those arguments and just, you know, throwing them at you. And I don't want to do that, because I also hold in my head at the same time, an understanding or maybe not even an understanding but an acknowledgement that immigration isn't necessarily what people want to have to do, right, that there's a lot of people who are forced to uproot their lives, and that even those who do so with a great deal of optimism and admiration for the place that they're going if it's the United States, that there's loss there. And, and so, I couldn't tell a 100% like booster, boostery story of the visa lottery. But what I wanted to do was understand why, why the lottery had such purchase in the places where it did. And so I tried to, in the book, explore the specific kinds of political and economic contexts where the visa lottery first arrived in in countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon. So I, I write a good deal about structural adjustment and neoliberal economic reforms that were sort of shaping the context in which people lived in these post colonial West African countries where a lot of the hopes and ambitions and dreams about what independence from European colonialism would mean, were feeling really hollowed out and undermined by, you know, states that weren't serving the needs of citizens, by economies that weren't working for most people. And I think it's an important context because it shapes how people started to think about emigration as a possibility, or as the possibility right. There's people talking about how there's really nothing for them. And so the only way to build the, it's not that different from actually from the the undocumented Irish immigrants that I start the book with. And so how do they come to see emigration as an exit and leaving as the only way to build a future? That's still happening at the same time that we have a global, including in the United States, although it's not necessarily visible to people in West Africa, the extent to which the United States itself is hardening its own borders; but especially the criminalization of migration in Europe is happening at the same time. And so these images of African migrants being unwanted, are being you know, imported back to, to these these countries. And at this very moment, the United States creates an invitation, an invitation to apply to become a permanent resident, a lawful immigrant to the United States, simply by throwing one's name into the hat, simply by entering this lottery, something that has a pretty low cost of entry. It's a free lottery to enter. There are eligibility requirements, so it's not truly open to all. But it presents itself as like a real opportunity, a real possibility for people in this context of people's sense of their world and their futures at home shrinking. And so the United States almost becomes a stand in for all of those dreams, right? And it's the it's the same story that the undocumented Irish are telling, as they go and meet with policymakers in Congress, but it's being reproduced in these very different contexts in Cameroon and Ghana. And the lottery itself feeds into those narratives. And it's being bolstered at the same time of course, by the export of US culture, the export of US pop culture and films and movies and songs and products and advertisements, and the sense of the place as a land of milk and honey, a place where the streets are paved with gold. And so I think that it helps shape what people imagine when they imagine going out there and launching a new life. Whether that reflects what it is actually like for immigrants to come to the United States, I think is an open question. I think it works for some people, it doesn't necessarily work for others. But I saw this unfolding, and I was starting to understand the lottery and how it works. And I was just struck by what incredible work it was doing for the United States, in selling the world a story about American openness, American diversity, American inclusion, a story that, you know, all too often is untrue here.

Kelly Therese Pollock  30:55  
It's interesting too, to read about the way that the Africans who were immigrating coming over are then sending money back and helping the economies of the countries that they are coming from, and I did an episode a while ago on 19th century Irish immigration; and it was a very similar story, like so much of the Irish economy was was being propped up by the money that people were sending back. Can you talk a little bit about that? And the way that the sending countries, you know, sort of at some point, just were like, "Yeah, okay, great. This is a good thing."

Dr. Carly Goodman  31:31  
Yes, I mean, and I think it's an important point that you're making, which is like part of how this gets debated in the United States today, it's always a strong contrast between now and then. And the contrast, you know, the contrasts are many, right. We have the internet now, we have airplanes, but the similarities are many as well. And I think sometimes we let some of those, those differences tend to be about sort of what countries are sending people and what those people look like, versus really any any difference in like, the fact that people move. This is just like what human beings do. And we build the estates that get in the way of doing that. So I do talk in the book about some of how people perceive migration opportunities to the United States as ultimately benefiting these communities. Because there are, of course, alternative narratives about brain drain and about sort of like the way that these immigration policies serve as a kind of form of plunder of human capital from places where that could really use doctors and lawyers and, and educators and nurses. So this remittance based development is huge, like some of these countries' remittances constitute a really large portion of the money that they that they have. And for individual families, I heard a lot of just speaking to people about the role of the lottery, what a positive thing, they perceive it to be that if somebody wins the lottery and goes and is able to get a good job, because they have legal status and work authorization, they're able to make a lot more money in the United States than they can at home. And then they can send money back to help people build bigger houses, pay for school fees, pay for health emergencies, pay for food, start small businesses. And that, you know, some people come to see this form of, of development or this form of economic survival as as one where people can really build something. People definitely benefit, and in some ways, some families benefit and some communities benefit. And I wanted to take seriously the fact that people brought this up again, and again, that this really could help, especially individuals, and especially those individuals' families. And I also want to acknowledge that, you know, gentrification is, is real, and there's a lot of diaspora wealth that is driving the development of very fancy big buildings in places like Accra, that, like some people are able to afford big SUVs, and that the infusion of these dollars doesn't necessarily redound to the benefit of of the broader community. And that a lot of people actually have noted that they see growing inequality in some of these places as a result of that, or that people can't afford their rent because there's so many, they can't afford to pay to find a place to live because there's diaspora money that is driving up those costs. So it's complicated. And I don't, again, it's not necessarily like a booster book where I say, "Well, this is just an un-alloyed good for for folks who win. There's some economic research that shows benefits to the families and individuals that win that I, you know, that I, that I mentioned in the book as well. I just think, you know, it changes. When these when these migrations happen, it just changes things both at home and abroad.

Kelly Therese Pollock  35:13  
You talk about this in the book, but it's odd on the face of it right that this is purely chance, right, purely. And so when Trump says, you know, "I want a merit based system," like on the face of it is like, "Yeah, okay, that makes sense, you know, meritocracy." So can you talk about some of the real benefits there are of of this system that just leaves it up to chance who gets to come?

Dr. Carly Goodman  35:38  
I mean, the whole system is chance, right? Like, it's just chance that I happen to have been born in the United States, and am therefore, a US citizen with my blue passport, that gives me license to go to all these other countries where I have ease of getting visas. And you know, a person who's applying for a visitor's visa in Nigeria right now is waiting almost two years, even if they qualify, even if they get to the front of the line, and the consular officer is in a good mood that day. Right. So that's a little it's a little nihilistic, I guess. So I want to acknowledge that that like our sense that like, who's deserving and who's not deserving. Those are fraught, value judgments and categories, and it sort of depends who's making them. And certainly, when Donald Trump says, "I want merit based," I think we all have a sense of what merit based would look like he told us, he said, "Norwegians." And in fact, you know, the whole system for hundreds of years has been built around exclusion, and especially exclusion of people from countries like Ghana and Nigeria. So the the visa lottery opens up that chance and that opportunity that otherwise doesn't. And then I was talking to people and getting this the sense that, in fact, a system where you apply for a visa at the consulate, and the American consular officer has all of the power to just say, "No, I think you're going to overstay, I'm going to keep the fee that you paid, but I'm going to turn you down. You can't go to that conference, you can't go visit your friend, because you're, it's too, it's too much of a risk that you would overstay and become an unauthorized immigrant in the United States." That gives that person a lot of power. And people perceive that. They look at the queues of people waiting in line at consular offices to go to the United States and other countries. And they can see the way that these countries with their consular offices hold power over the people in their country. And part of I think the appeal of the visa lottery is to say actually, we're going to leave a little bit of this to chance. And that chance might be a more fair adjudicator, then then the consular officer who can just you know, basically look at the you know, look at your age and look at your income and look at especially the passport that you hold, and just say no, and just slam the gate. I also write about how lotteries themselves have become like an ascendant practice in our neoliberal age here and there that lotteries, and sort of chance taking are part of like the infrastructure of our worlds now, in a way, and that, like the vagaries and unfairness of capitalism, all just seems to be a matter of, of luck and chance, after all, the structural unfairness that's that's built in as well. And so I think they, that the notion of a lottery just makes intuitive sense to people in 1997, or 2023, because we are seeing more and more the role that chance plays in our lives. It also positions the United States as a prize to be won, right? It, it frames the United States as the ultimate dream, which is really, you know, powerful marketing, if unintended.

Kelly Therese Pollock  39:01  
It says so much about the the time we're in that really the whole reason this still exists is because of congressional dysfunction. Can you talk a little bit about that, and in why Congress, which you know, is often not so happy about this program has completely failed to dismantle it?

Dr. Carly Goodman  39:21  
It has failed to dismantle it for a few different reasons like that, because of change over time. It hasn't always been the same reason. But I guess I'll I'll maybe I'll do a little a little timeline. So I think it's important and it's interesting that this is created at a moment of like expansive imagination, and policymakers working on the Immigration Act of 1990 had this I don't know, I think even some of them realized it was a short window because it was already closing by 1990, but that Congress had passed a law in 1986 that allowed almost 3 million people to regularize their status, sometimes called an amnesty, and at the same time had imposed a new set of sanctions on employers who would hire undocumented immigrants and new border fortification. So this sort of model that becomes the model really, of marrying like enforcement with admitting people or allowing people to stay. So at the time, there's like a consensus that people who've lived here for a long time, they're part of our communities, they work they have family member, like, okay, they can stay right. And they should stay, and they should stay with like the full rights of permanent residents, and then citizens. So Congress had just sort of dealt with the political, you know, the high political issue of unauthorized immigration in 1986. So this was their chance to work on how are we going to change how we decide who to admit. So it was a little bit less fraught, in terms of the politics and they had an opportunity to, to think more expansively. And so the bills that are under consideration for the Immigration Act of 1990, all raised the numerical limits on immigration, there's a lot more focus on recruiting people to serve economic needs, so recruiting high, high skilled, I'll say high wage workers. The Diversity Visa Lottery is conceived as something that we're going to add on. And we're not even going to take away from the other categories. And that's that kind of lack of zero sum thinking becomes very rare in immigration policymaking from there on out. So the act passes, the lottery is like a great success, you know, 50 to 55,000 people a year from underrepresented countries. It's orderly, it like it does what it says it's going to do, which is kind of unexpected, because the people most involved really just hoped it would admit more Europeans. It actually becomes a very important channel for African immigration. And then the United States sees sort of one of the ugliest waves of nativism since the early part of the 20th century in the 1990s. We're seeing one again now, but it's a real low point for for public opinion on whether immigration serves the United States. We see some really destructive legislation, a California ballot initiative called Prop 187, passes with a big majority of the vote. And then in 1996, Congress passes some pretty draconian immigration legislation, making it harder for people to adjust their status, making a lot more people deportable, mandating detention for certain immigrants. And it's very ugly legislation that it continues to operate and you know, shape people's lives in profound and disheartening ways. But what Congress couldn't do in 1996, was revise that legal admission system that they had created in 1990, because a lot of policymakers differentiate in their at least in their politics in the way that they're talking to constituents and talking to the public between legal immigrants and unauthorized immigrants. And there's not that appetite to really transform the categories of legal immigration in that moment, even though there were proposals to do away with the the lottery, even coming out of Barbara Jordan's immigration commission. It's such a nativist moment that it was. Then in the 2000s, we see, I, you know, I don't know what would have happened in the absence of a key event at the beginning of the 21st century. But what what does happen in response to 911 is a massive reorganization of the immigration bureaucracy and a response to that moment that is so focused on immigration, which is kind of surprising, because it's not really an immigration story. And yet, that's where the state's focus goes, is protecting the homeland and casting, you know, a dragnet approach, treating all immigrants and any potential immigrant as a source of potential threat to the United States. So that supercharges the politics of being focused on enforcement measures, and we see draconian legislation introduced. And people policymakers tried to revisit that model from the 1980s of sort of saying, "Okay, some people who are living here can get legal status, but we're going to match that with ever more harsh enforcement measures, border militarization, more Border Patrol personnel," the invention after 2003 of ICE internal enforcement. And so those immigration reform packages have those things all together, but they didn't pass. That keeps the lottery intact because in some of them, they eliminate the lottery and some of them they pare the lottery down. The reason that they can't pass has a lot to do with the ascendant power of far right nativists within the institutional Republican Party. So that happens in 2006 and 2007, that the immigration reform packages aren't able to pass, although Congress continues to appropriate ever more funding for enforcement alone. This leaves millions of people in the United States, of course, in a state of limbo, and precarity, which is deeply, deeply unfair to them. But it also does for the moment, keep the visa lottery operational until the Trump administration. Trump was not a fan of this policy and this program. He seized a moment when somebody who had won the visa lottery committed a terrible act of violence in lower Manhattan to say that the cause of the violence was the lax immigration policies, again, a drag that approach that as though that's the most salient fact in this person's biography they had entered the country long before. If anything, living in the United States may increase somebody's likelihood of committing a terrible act of violence, certainly it increases their access to firearms. A terrible tragedy, but one that had a great political purpose for Donald Trump, who then called for the visa lottery to be eliminated. Trump was also unable to get any immigration legislation passed by Congress, in part because, again, his focus on slamming the gates on future immigration and transforming the legal immigration system was so powerful, and it's maybe it's a more mainstream position now. But it was one that couldn't even pass muster with with Trump as, as the President, because it's really the the far right, nativist groups advising him that think that that's the focus, more than building a wall, more than investing more in border patrol and immigration detention, and holding people in ICE and keeping people out, this notion that we have to end legal admissions going forward is really important to them, because they're very focused on this question of American demographics and racial diversity. So even so, Congress, those bills collapsed, because they were they were not because Democrats wouldn't have acquiesced to a wall, not because there was anything else good in those laws. But but because even though those those limits on legal immigration, just didn't have the support that, that this sort of fringe nativist, right would like. What did help to curtail the lottery's operation was the COVID pandemic, which shuttered consulates for some time and slowed consular processing. And so I think that's probably a very dangerous lesson to have learned from the pandemic, that without the assent of Congress, you can really transform immigration policy very profoundly through executive action, given the power afforded it during an emergency.

Kelly Therese Pollock  48:09  
Yeah, well, there is so much more in this book, we haven't even gotten to like the history of the internet. So how can people get a copy of the book?

Dr. Carly Goodman  48:17  
People can get a copy of the book by going to UNC Press, and there's a discount code that I can give you for UNC Press, if you ordered directly from the press. You can also order it from your favorite independent bookstore. You can also order it on You can also go to a library and there's also going to be an audiobook version, which should be out at the same time that the book is officially published. And, you know, I'm just like, excited for people to have a chance to read it. And I hope to only hear the good things, but I hope that in their in people's classrooms and discussions they can they can take me to task for all manner of things and just engage and enjoy. Because I put a lot of ideas into this book. So I think there's there's a lot to wrap our heads around. And hopefully this can help people think about the recent history of immigration and recognize that not that long ago, policymakers expanded access and did some did some surprising things. And that this, this policy, which you know, has continued to operate has just been just been normal and good.

Kelly Therese Pollock  49:28  
Well, Carly, thank you so much. I love this book, and I really enjoyed speaking with you.

Dr. Carly Goodman  49:33  
Thank you so much.

Teddy  49:51  
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Transcribed by

Carly GoodmanProfile Photo

Carly Goodman

I am a historian, editor, and the author of Dreamland: America’s Immigration Lottery in an Age of Restriction (University of North Carolina Press, May 2023). My book is now available for preorder!

I am a Senior Editor at Made by History at the Washington Post, where I edit daily commentary and analysis from the nation’s leading historians. Made by History won the OAH’s 2022 Friend of History Award. I also lead trainings and workshops on op-ed writing. Pitch us at

I am also the Communications Coordinator for Nationalities Service Center, a century-old immigration agency in the heart of Philadelphia.

From 2019-2021, I was a visiting assistant professor of history at La Salle University, where I taught courses on subjects like immigration and the 1990s, as well as courses in U.S., global, African American, and African history. Prior to teaching at La Salle, I was the Mellon/American Council of Learned Society Public Fellow and Communications Analyst at American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia. Before my Ph.D. I worked at Human Rights First in New York.