Winning the immigration lottery -- literally

Blogger Steve Kelman is impressed with a U.S. immigration policy that draws qualified applicants from all over the world.

I had lunch recently with a first-year student of mine in our master of public policy program who is from Togo, a small nation in West Africa. He had been an undergraduate in the United States before coming to graduate school at Harvard, and I asked him how he landed in this country to go to school in the first place. (Togo is a former French colony and, as such, people who leave for higher education traditionally go to France).

The answer, it turns out, is that he literally won the immigration lottery.

In 1990, Congress passed a law offering immigration opportunities to 50,000 people a year who are from countries otherthat send few immigrants to the United States. Those who are interested, and can meet certain minimum education requirements, can apply via a lottery system. Last year, during a 60-day application period, more than 12 million qualified applications were received! This is an amazing statement about the continued attractiveness of the United States to people around the world.

I had only vaguely heard about this lottery, and was amazed to hear what my student told me. We are surely the only country in the world that displays this kind of encouragement of diversity and of amazing generosity. I will confess that some patriotic pride welled up in me that Congress had passed such a law. In my view, this is a crucial part of America's moral strength. (It is also in my view the case that the single most-important factor that may counteract for us the well-nigh universal tendency of great powers to become less dynamic and to decline is the constant entrance of new blood in our country from immigration -- just look at all the high-tech firms started by immigrants.)

My student comes from a middle class family in Togo, but not a wealthy or elite one. Both his parents, however, are dead. After studying undergrad, he worked for a few years and now he is working toward a graduate education in public policy and management. After he graduates, he is considering several possible jobs, including working for the U.S. government. He has been a great student in class so far (he did very well on his first paper!), and he would be a catch for a federal agency. He is bringing his skills and abilities to our country, not to speak of (as critics of immigration typically forget) being a consumer, and hence product purchaser, here in the U.S. And, by the way, he has now become a U.S. citizen.

You can read more about the most recent immigration lottery in a State Department press release.