Washington — Advocates for the African diaspora in the United States have stepped up a campaign to urge the U.S. Congress not to end a longstanding visa programme aimed at boosting immigration from "underrepresented countries".
The programme, known as the diversity visa lottery, has in recent years been sharply tilted towards African immigration. Since 2008, immigrants from African countries have made up nearly half of the 55,000 randomly awarded U.S. work visas annually awarded.
Yet under a landmark bipartisan proposal to overhaul the U.S. immigration system, released in mid-April and currently being debated in the U.S. Senate, the so-called DV lottery would be eliminated (see Section 2303 of the draft bill). Instead, it would be replaced with "merit-based" visas aimed at opening U.S doors to higher-skilled workers, particularly in the science, technology and engineering fields.
If passed, the provisions on the DV lottery would take effect in October 2014.
"We are concerned that the Senate's plan to eliminate the DV lottery will stem the future flow of immigration from African countries and negatively impact the future make-up of America," the Cameroon American Council (CAC), a Washington-based advocacy group, said Monday in a statement.
"The DV lottery is built upon foundational, democratic and egalitarian principles that strengthen America. These principles advance equal opportunity, attracts entrepreneurs and visionaries who contribute immensely to the American small business sector, and improves the quality of our social, economic, political and cultural life."
The DV programme was created in 1990 with the aim of rectifying a bias within U.S. immigration laws against certain countries. The lottery is open to citizens of countries where immigration to the United States totalled less than 50,000 over the preceding half-decade, and it closes again once those levels hit a certain level.
As such, while high-immigration countries such as Mexico, the Philippines or China have never been allowed to enter the DV lottery, the programme has allowed in a broad spectrum of immigrants from smaller or lesser-represented countries. The representation from Africa has been particularly significant.
Since 2010, for instance, just three percent of Asians became U.S. permanent residents through the DV lottery, while more than 20 percent of Africans did so. The lottery thus became the third most important avenue to U.S. residency for Africans, behind asylum claims and family reunification.
Indeed, family reunification made up nearly half of U.S. residency routes for Africans in the past three years, yet this route too is not included in the current Senate bill. Instead, the current bill focuses on bringing in higher-skilled workers.
"Lawmakers say the new proposal won't put various communities at a disadvantage, because new visas will be made for them - but they've left Africans out," Yves Bouele, an advocate with the Cameroon American Council, told IPS.
"They say everybody is going to be well served with these new provisions, and that might be true, but that definitely doesn't look to be the case for Africans. If the DV lottery is eliminated, we need to ensure that new provisions will continue to serve these African communities, which are really underserved."
"The DV lottery has had the effect of lifting families out of poverty; provided opportunities to the affected families; and provided a talent pool for the U.S. economy," the CAC suggests. "It has been a very successful foreign policy, civil rights achievement and national security tool."
Such claims notwithstanding, Republican members of Congress have been aiming at dismantling the diversity visa programme for years. Indeed, Bouele says that the DV lottery has become a make-or-break issue for the Senate's proposal.
"Basically, the DV lottery had to go in order to make sure the Republicans supported the bill," he notes.
"And now people worry that if we insist on the lottery the Republicans will back out. Why exactly they want to take this out so bad, I'm not sure. We have a lot of data to prove how good the African immigrant population has been for the United States."
Most recently, the Republican-held House of Representatives passed a bill in November that would have increased the number of high-skilled immigrant visas while eliminating the DV lottery - exactly as the new Senate proposal would do.
At the time, President Barack Obama threatened to veto the bill, calling it a "narrowly tailored proposal". While the president has not discussed the DV lottery since the Senate unveiled the new proposal, other Congressional democrats have expressed their concerns.
"I am truly disappointed that the bipartisan proposal eliminates the Diversity Visa Program that provides for the future flow of diverse immigrant groups from underrepresented countries to have a real chance of obtaining the American Dream," Yvette Clarke, a member of both the House of Representatives and the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement.
"Although assurances have been made that the new 'Merit Based Point System' would account for diversity, my concern is that it isn't robust or sustainable enough to adequately protect the future flow of racially and socioeconomically diverse immigrant populations."
Still, the new immigration reform proposal is a massive piece of legislation, and if it were to pass it would be the largest such overhaul since the mid-1980s. Further, while the bill is coming under increased fire from conservatives, it has received notably strong bipartisan support from both lawmakers and the U.S. public.
Given the polarised and politicised nature of immigration policy in the United States, the Senate's bill has been widely referred to as strong though compromise legislation. In this context, many appear willing to offer concessions in order to get the legislation through to become law.
"This isn't one of our favourite elements of the new proposal, as we think there's real value in the diversity visa system - it has brought in people who otherwise wouldn't have been able to access the U.S.," Crystal Williams, the executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told IPS.
"But taken holistically, the number of things that the bill does that are of great benefit has to be weighed against the sacrifice of the DV lottery. Right now, we're willing to accept that trade-off, although reluctantly."
Further, Williams notes that some of the context around the discussion of diversity in the United States has evolved over the past two decades.
"One of the reasons that this is a politically viable bill is because diversity has become a driving factor right now," she says. "Today, there is a recognition that any party that wants to stay politically viable has to understand that diversity."