8 Questions about Immigration in 8 Minutes

Has immigration been a hot topic in your circles lately? We sat down with Mia Rubin, our Interim Immigration Legal Services Director, to break down the basics. Mia is passionate about serving refugees and immigrants in Chicago, and she has been involved in the work of World Relief Chicago since 2015.   

Question: What is the history behind the Diversity Visa Lottery and is that its official name? 

Answer: Believe it or not, that is really its name and when you are selected we really do say you “won the lottery.” The diversity lottery program was created to help people from western and northern European countries to immigrate to the United States in reaction to the demographic shift that occurred in the immigrant population after the 1965 Immigration Act. A few years later, President George H.W. Bush established the program on an ongoing basis. Currently, Diversity Visas are available for nationals on almost every continent and applicants must be from countries with low immigration representation in the United States. There are 50,000 Diversity Visas available for 2018.   

Q: How do people qualify for the lottery? 

A: Immigrating to the United States via the diversity lottery program is a two-step process. First, you “enter the lottery” by submitting an application to the Department of State. To enter the lottery, you must be a native of a country designated by the government as a “low-admission” country and you must either have a high school education or 2 years of work experience in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience within the five years leading up to entering the lottery. 

If you “win the lottery,” you move on to the next step, which is to apply for a green card. The applicant must provide detailed information about their previous jobs, schools and addresses so that the government can verify their identity and perform background checks. Failure to provide this information will result in the government denying the application. 

The green card application also requires applicants to show, according to a long and very detailed list of rules, that they are a person of good moral character and that they are admissible—that there isn’t any reason under the law that we should bar them from entering the country. For example, someone who gets a visa through the lottery could be denied a green card because they have a communicable disease, a history of alcoholism, or a record of drug violations or domestic violence.  

In addition to providing information on the application, each applicant will be put through a back ground check and interviewed in person before a decision is made on the application. The adjudicating officer will ask questions that test the credibility of the applicant—is this person someone who tells the truth and does so accurately—and to elicit any information that was not provided in the application to ensure a good decision is made. 

Once a person arrives in the United States with their green card, they are on a path to citizenship. If a green card holder maintains residency here for five years, does not break any of the rules of admissibility mentioned before, learns English and memorizes U.S. history and civics, they can apply for citizenship. A second round of background checks will be performed at that time in addition to an interview.                    

Q: Does anyone have statistics on how many lottery winners have committed acts of terror or other crimes?  

A: Yes and no. Most local law agencies only track whether or not a person is a citizen, not what specific visa they entered on.  

When you look at the big picture, all types of immigrants (including undocumented) commit crimes at a lower rate than the native-born population. A Cato Institute report showed that in 2014 the “incarceration rate was 1.53 percent for natives, 0.85 percent for illegal immigrants, and 0.47 percent for legal immigrants.” Or in other words, “illegal immigrants are 44 percent less likely to be incarcerated than natives [and] legal immigrants are 69 percent less likely to be incarcerated than natives.”  The study looked at data from the United States Census’s American Community Survey (ACS) on immigrants aged 18 to 54 who were incarcerated in 2014. 

When you hone in on diversity visa lottery winners, the rate of incarceration is even lower. A different Cato Institute report found that “immigrants from the top 20 diversity visa dominant sending countries are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans.  All of these 20 countries together have an incarceration rate of 0.20 percent – about one-eighth that of native-born Americans. 

There are more detailed numbers available for people we have convicted of terrorism because the list is much smaller. A report by the Cato Institute, found that between 1975 and 2015 there were 154 cases of foreign-born terrorists convicted of planning or committing a terrorist attack in the U.S. That would include all types of immigrants, not just those who came on a family-based visa (chain migration). Recent reports from DHS claim that 402 foreign born individuals were convicted of “terrorism-related charges” between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2016 (a much shorter time frame). DHS’s definition of “terrorism-related charges” included any conviction that occurred in the course of an investigation for terrorism. For example, two men were included on that list who were convicted of stealing boxes of cereal. They ended up on the list because someone inaccurately reported to the police that they were stealing weapons. Because the conviction for stealing cereal came in the course of an investigation for terrorism, these men remained on the list DHS produced in its report of foreign born terrorists.  

Q: What is the history of chain migration and is that its official name? 

A: The term chain migration refers to family-based immigration. The term is used to give the idea that family immigration is in some way uncontrollable or unstoppable. In fact, the system only allows immigrants to bring close family members to the United States. The most distant relationship allowed by law is that of brother and sister. The number of visas available to family members that aren’t immediate relatives (a citizen’s spouse, parent or children under the age of 21) is restricted, which means that people can wait years, even decades, to immigrate after their petition is approved. So, in theory, one immigrant could petition for her brother who could then petition for his wife’s sister, etc, in a way that would result in someone coming who isn’t directly related to the first immigrant, but the process would be slow and a close connection to someone who has already made their home in the United States would always be required. 

The conversation about family-based migration is at best a question of whether we believe that family reunification is an inherent economic and social good. For example, is it good to allow a woman who becomes an American citizen to petition for her mother and father to immigrate even though they are of retirement age. They won’t be working and might be seen as a drain on the economy because of that, but they will provide support to their daughter by taking care of her kids and her home while she works. Other areas of concern alluded to when people talk about selecting individual immigrants instead of allowing them to come based on family ties are already addressed in the immigration system—being related to a citizen doesn’t give you a pass for any of the requirements we currently have for immigration. You will be vetted. You will be barred from entering if you do not meet our strict standards. 

Q: Currently, how many people is one immigrant allowed to petition to bring to the U.S.? 

A: The government does not cap how many relatives a person can petition for directly. However, when a legal permanent resident (green card holder) or a citizen petitiona to bring a relative to the United States, they must demonstrate to the United States that they can financially support the intending immigrant. In fact, they sign a contract with the government that states that they will be held liable for any costs incurred by the government if the relative immigrates here and then becomes a public charge.  Whether a person can financially support their relative is determined by comparing their income and assets to the number of people they currently support plus the relative(s) intending to immigrate.  

Q: If you don’t have someone already in the U.S. that can petition for your immigration, how else can you immigrate? 

A: You can also be sponsored by an employer (depending on qualifications, industry, and type of work), but the employer has to demonstrate to the government that they advertised the position but no qualified citizens applied, making it necessary to petition for the impending immigrant. There are also other options, such as the previously mentioned Diversity Visa or humanitarian grounds (human trafficking, asylum, domestic violence). These are very hard to qualify for; all applicants must show that they meet all of the qualifications to immigrate and will be background checked.   

Q: Do all immigrants go through the same security screening before they enter the country? 

A: Yes, except for refugees who go through extra layers of screening before they enter the U.S. system.  

Q: If we drop the lottery program and limit chain migration, how much will really change? 

A: Family-based immigration is divided into two categories: immediate relatives and family preference categories (“extended” relatives, like brothers or adult children). In 2015, 44% of new green card holders were immediate relatives of American citizens and an additional 20% were those “extended family members” who applied under the family preference categories. That means that family based immigration accounted for 64% of total immigration. Employment based immigration accounted for an additional 14%. Diversity visa lottery winners made up 5% and refugees and asylees made up the remainder. 

In numbers, that means that if we ended the family based immigration program we would see approximately 640,000 fewer legal immigrants next year. When you decrease the number of visas available or are too restrictive about who can get them, undocumented immigration goes up. People will take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take to be with other members of their family. 


World Relief Chicago provides immigration legal services to the Chicago community. Our upcoming events include DACA Renewal and Citizenship Workshops. To learn more or volunteer, visit our website.   

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