By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Winning the immigration lottery -- literally

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.


Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 05, 2010 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Wed, Oct 6, 2010 A critic

Overall, I thought this was actually a very good, informative article. My only concern lies with the following quote at the end: "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."

As a "critic of immigration" myself, I think the referenced student is an absolute asset to our country, as described by the author. But guess what? He did everything the *right* way - he followed our laws and rules to obtain his citizenship. Consequently, he is not an ILLEGAL immigrant, which is where (I believe) the majority of criticism lies.

Similarly, illegal immigrants have no real incentive to obtain their citizenship, and can receive various benefits free of charge. This is what is being criticized - I have no problem with legal immigrants coming to our nation and taking advantage of the opportunities here.

As far as immigration reform, I think the focus needs to be on reforming the process - a friend of mine's parents spent 13 years obtaining their citizenship. This is ludicrous! At the same time, those not showing any concern for becoming a legal citizen should not be welcomed - however, neither of these actions can be performed independently of the other.

Wed, Oct 6, 2010 WORLDVIEW Atlanta, ga

This is idiotic to state that US is the only country in the world to allow generosity like that. How about European Union accepting whole countries so now for example Polish people can freely live and work in Great Britain equivalent of all Mexicans being able to live and work in the US which I don't see happening. So who is more qenerous? Being able to come here only through lottery is humilating how about the author use a lottery to determine if he's going to have his next meal, I don't think he would like that, he wants to know for SURE not some kind of self-aggrandising lottery.

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