Bert Bayou counts himself among the lucky ones.
He had completed his undergraduate studies in politics and international relations and was working for the United Nations’ World Food Programme in Ethiopia when his mother pestered him into applying for the Diversity Visa Lottery Programme.
In 2000, after entering for the first time, he “won”.
Then 23-year-old Bayou, seeing it as his best opportunity to pursue his graduate studies, decided to take the next step and apply for the visa to come to the United States.
“I was young,” Bayou told Al Jazeera. “I didn’t want to stay doing the same thing that I was doing.
“I really wanted to continue working on development projects and addressing poverty, and most of the international professionals that I knew working these jobs at a higher level had graduate degrees,” Bayou continued.
Created by the 1990 Immigration Reform Act, the Diversity Visa Programme (DVP) selects 100,000 applicants in a lottery who are then eligible to apply for a US residency visa. After bring selected, the applicants go through the same application, screening and examination process as all prospective immigrants who come to the US. Only half complete the process and are issued Green Cards.
The process is time intensive – as it requires multiple certifications of documents proving an applicant’s educational and work history – and, for many, expensive.
The $330 fee for filing the visa is sometimes multiple months’ of an applicant’s salary, Anu Joshi, director of immigration policy at the New York Immigration Coalition told Al Jazeera.
The costs – both in money and time – of translating a lottery win into a diversity visa are most easily and often paid by those who are highly educated, research in 2012 on the effects of the programme in Africa showed.
Far from a ‘threat to national security’
In the hours and days following Sayfullo Saipov’s alleged attackin New York City two weeks ago, which left eight people dead, US President Donald Trump quickly called for the end of the DVP, highlighting that Saipov, an Uzbek national, was admitted to the US through the programme.
Trump said it was a “disaster for our country” and called for a merit-based programme. He also promised to increase “extreme vetting” of immigrants.
Bayou said that diversity visa recipients are far from the “threat to national security” label Trump has used to depict them. They’re going to school, getting married, raising kids, and building a life for themselves, he said.
“That’s the kind of immigration programme you want to have continue,” he added.
Despite often having advanced degrees from back home, Bayou said, many immigrants accept low-wage jobs outside of their profession, sometimes multiple, and the possibility of returning to school in order to pursue to promise of opportunity in the United States.
“My mom saw how her brothers managed to get here, get their papers, work small-paying, minimum-wage jobs and go to school and then they ended up having a good life, having a good job and having a stable life and living in peace,” he said.
Still, many in the US wish to alter immigration programmes.
Proposed changes to the US immigration system – such as the RAISE Act introduced by Senator Tom Cotton and David Perdue in February 2017 – would eliminate this pathway to US residency and citizenship for 50,000 immigrants each year.
During a press conference, Cotton dismissed the Diversity Visa Programme as “outdated” and partially responsible for making a “permanent underclass” of both working-class Americans as well as immigrants “for whom the American Dream is always out of reach”.
Cotton was also critical of the programme’s role in “unlimited chain migration” of families, as he said visa recipients can “open up immigration no just to your immediate family, but your extended family, your village, your clan, your tribe”.
Roy Beck, founder and president of NumbersUSA, a nonprofit that works for immigration reduction, told Al Jazeera there “may be a little more chain migration going on with the visa lottery because you’re pulling people out of places that haven’t had a lot of previous immigration … the fact is that every kind of immigration you have is multiplied by chain migration”.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has labelled NumbersUSA “nativist” and accused Beck of close ties to John Tanton, a far-right activist with known connections to white nationalist ideologues.
Beck said his organisation is bipartisan and wants to limit immigration to historic standards. He agrees with Cotton that high levels of immigration exacerbate the economic challenges of the US working class, saying it has nothing to do with their character, but is an issue of “supply and demand” in the labour market.
“More than anything, we want to honour the tradition of America being a place where everybody, no matter how they’re born, has some opportunity of upward mobility,” Beck said.
‘How can you refuse?’
Some diversity visa recipients are looking to help family members apply while they still can, Jessica Greenberg, a staff attorney at the African Services Committee in New York, told Al Jazeera.
As lottery winners must identify sponsors in the United States when applying for a visa, immigrants will often apply on behalf of their family back home, and immigrant communities build strong ties to support one another.
Greenberg said that while DVP recipients are certainly worried about the future of the programme, many are frustrated and annoyed with what they say appears to be more immigrant scapegoating.
“The words I hear a lot are ‘ridiculous’ and ‘silly'”, Greenberg said.
Most of the immigrants Greenberg has spoken to “have just expressed their gratitude that they’re already here”.
Still, the lottery is random and can place winners in a difficult position.
Aschalew Asabie, who came to Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC, from Ethiopia in 2014, had to give up on his studies when his lottery number was chosen.
“I was half-way to graduation so it was hard for me to decide to come,” Asabie told Al Jazeera.
But in the end, he said, that the choice was clear.
“This is America,” he said.
“The way I grew up, and especially for Ethiopian people, it’s unacceptable for me to refuse this chance, because I’ll never get it again. You are so lucky, how can you refuse that?”
For Bayou, who became a US citizen in 2006, attempts to end the DVP are a distraction from “the actual perpetrators who are creating poverty jobs here in the US and enriching themselves”.
After two years living with his uncles, Bayou was admitted to a graduate programme at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, completing his master’s degree in international development and social change.
Today, he is a labour organiser for UNITE HERE in Washington, DC, and while many of the workers he organises are immigrants, some are working-class US citizens.
“I work for labour unions,” Bayou said, “and I know that immigrants or US citizens who work low-paying jobs are struggling because companies don’t want to pay them the money they are owed, not because immigrants are coming here.”
Attempts to “shift the blame to immigrants” are a distraction that protects those in power, Bayou claimed.
“We were invited to this country: invited”, he told Al Jazeera. “And now, to be seen as an enemy is really heartbreaking.”