Each year, for as long as Garima KC can remember, signs for the diversity visa lottery appeared in shop windows all throughout Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, the fall registration period often coinciding with the Hindu festival Dashain. During the festival in 2017, KC and her mother walked the busy streets—saturated with Nepali men and women shopping for gifts—and saw a sign posted inside a nearby photo studio: Sign up for the American Diversity Visa Lottery.
The lottery system was relatively simple: walk into a store, fill out a form, wait a few months for an email that said, essentially, “yes” or “no.”
Cheerful in the spirit of the season, KC and her mother, Januka, turned to one another outside the shop, shrugged, and asked—Why not? she remembers. They filled out the necessary paperwork, then went about their day, completed their shopping, and returned to their home. “It was barely in our minds,” KC says. “We didn’t even bother to look, when the message came months later.”
When KC’s older brother reminded them to check the reply, KC and her mother were so skeptical about their chances that they couldn’t even remember where they had left the paper with their confirmation number. It took a day or so to search for the receipt, but the KC family tracked it down. They checked their number in the system, entering a 2-5-3-7. The screen glowed: they’d been selected for a visa. If they chose to take advantage of the opportunity, they could move to America. Two years later, KC still remembers that number; because of its significance to her life, she’s unlikely to forget.
Throughout the past two and a half years, President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration policy has been a source of political debate and public contention. Immigration, a central issue for the Trump administration, is listed as one of five top policy categories on the White House website, and the president speaks frequently and publicly in disapproval of the current state of the American immigration system. At the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas on April 6, he harshly criticized the visa lottery that brought KC and her mother to America.
“Do you think they’re putting their finest?” the president said. “Do you think they’re putting their great people there? No. And then people come in and you see what happens with the crime and murders, 4,000 murders last year, four thousand. How stupid can we be to put up with this?”
According to the U.S. State Department, the diversity visa program was created to provide access for immigrants “from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States.” The current system provides 50,000 visas annually, making up only a small percentage of the million people who emigrate to the United States each year. Despite its relatively small numbers, the diversity visa stands at the center of the questions that drive the immigration narrative: questions of human rights, equity, merit and who has the right to define such terms.
When the KC family was offered a visa, they had to weigh its worth. Was the opportunity afforded by a life in the U.S. greater than the sacrifice of leaving behind a life in Nepal? “It was always a question,” KC says. “Even now, still a question. The U.S. is amazing, but it’s strange in so many ways.”
KC and her family were among the more than 4,000 diversity visa recipients from Nepal in 2018, according to the U.S. State Department. Though she can offer specific ways in which American society, economics, and infrastructure are preferable to her home in Nepal—better living wages, more opportunities for women, lower levels of pollution—KC’s life in Nepal was hardly filled with suffering. A member of an upper-middle-class family living in Kathmandu, KC had relatively solid educational opportunities, and freedom from the human rights violations like child marriages and menstrual isolation that occur in more rural areas, often to minorities or members of lower castes (as the U.S. Department of State Human Rights Report indicates). In the end, the family’s answer was split. KC’s father, Sitaram, stayed in Nepal, to continue working in a stable job, and her brother will finish his college education before attempting to transition to America. Garima and Januka KC moved to New Jersey so that the daughter could begin to apply for college.
Felisa Tibbits, a lecturer in Columbia University’s International Education Development Program, says that across the world, people increasingly value higher education, particularly American higher education, and many parents are willing to make significant sacrifices to gain access for their children. According to World Bank education statistics, only a small percentage of the Nepali population attends college. Garima KC would have been among that number, as her brother is now, but thanks to the diversity visa, she will attend college in the United States, an opportunity that her mother values highly.
Garima and Januka KC decided that the opportunities provided by an American college education were worth the financial sacrifice, as well as the pain of leaving behind half their family and moving a world away. The transition to America has been particularly difficult for Januka, who is working outside the home for the first time in her life, in a country where she has limited abilities in the dominant language. She misses her husband terribly. “It’s very hard,” Januka KC said, with her daughter translating. “A husband and a wife are the wheels on the same car.” So she calls him on the phone every day—when it’s night in New Jersey and early morning in Nepal. Januka and Sitaram KC stretch their marriage across 7,000 miles so that their children can have a chance at something better.
“An American degree gives you opportunities worldwide,” Januka said. “It can take you anywhere. I want my children to have that access.”
Tibbits considers access to education as a human rights issue, though she notes that people value higher education for a host of reasons of varying validity, and notes that “there are two different kinds of language you find in the standards around higher education and making it available. One is on the basis of merit, and the other capacity.” International law is relatively unclear when distinguishing whether students have a right to advanced education based on their giftedness or their preparedness, and it’s similarly unclear how such policies apply across borders. In many ways, these sorts of questions echo the kind that are frequently posed in political policy debates about immigration.
Carly Goodman, an immigration historian with an expertise in the diversity visa lottery, criticized the use of the term ‘merit’ in immigration policy discussions. “By merit, we often mean high levels of skilled training and education,” Goodman says. “But what people offer each other in terms of community is so much more than what their resumes say.”
Garima KC’s life represents the intersection of two questions: Is America something you can get? And Is America something you can give? As immigrants like the KCs make personal sacrifices in the hopes of better opportunities, American politicians try to define policies that establish who should have freedom to enter inside their borders, and why.
President Trump frequently cites the diversity visa lottery and chain migration as central problems in current immigration policy, often proposing policy limitations to both. On many occasions, he has declared that the diversity visa lottery must come to an end. In a speech on Thursday, the president proposed his new merit-based immigration plan and addressed the diversity visa, saying “Random selection is contrary to American values and blocks out many qualified potential immigrants from around the world who have much to contribute.” He added that the new plan would include the same number of visas currently extended, “but instead of admitting people through random chance, we will establish simple, universal criteria for admission to the United States. No matter where in the world you’re born, no matter who your relatives are, if you want to become an American citizen, it will be clear exactly what standard we ask you to achieve.”
In his past criticism of the diversity visa lottery, the president has often referred to Sayfullo Saipov, the perpetrator of a deadly driving spree down a bicycle path in Manhattan in 2017, an attack that killed eight people and injured more. Saipov immigrated to the United States as a recipient of the diversity visa in 2010, and his violent action, coupled with his immigration status, brought questions of national security to the forefront of public conversation. In a 2019 press conference declaring a national emergency at the southern border, President Trump said again, “You know what happened on the West Side Highway. That young wise guy drove over and killed eight people and horribly injured — nobody talks about that.” Multiple news outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, reported that Saipov radicalized after moving to the United States.
Trump went on to add, “He had many people brought in because he was in the United States. It’s called chain migration.”
Though there’s a possibility that Saipov brought some family members to the U.S., it’s highly unlikely that he was able to bring many.
The State Department has a stringent vetting process for diversity visa recipients. Applications are only available to people with a high school diploma or work experience, excluding many people in the world. Before awarding lottery winners a green card, the United States also requires submission of birth certificates, court and prison records, military records, police certificates, passports and medical exam files, followed by a formal interview. Garima KC remembers the long process of completing the visa requirements: filling out medical information, stopping by the police station to pick up records, completing the interview, paying fees. Because of a green card interview, KC missed her final chemistry exam.
The inception of the diversity visa is a long and peculiar history. In the mid-1960s, American immigration policy shifted, prioritizing family reunification and immigrants with connections inside the United States. This is “the basis of most legal immigration to the U.S. today,” says Goodman.
In the wake of this shift, Irish and Italian groups began to feel that they were being shut out of the country, and lobbyists organized to create immigration opportunities for foreigners who didn’t have connections inside the U.S. “First, they sort of formulated their proposal by saying—’Why aren’t there visas available for people who are like the immigrants of yore, who sort of picked themselves up and, by virtue of their ambition and drive, could come to the United States and make a life for themselves?’” says Goodman. “And then they also tapped into this idea of diversity, which is another concept that was becoming a sort of powerful discourse – that diversity is what makes America great.”
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, politicians continued to push through policies that would re-imagine immigration requirements, in the interest of Italian and particularly Irish immigration, says Dr. Anna O. Law in her article The Diversity Visa Lottery: A Cycle of Unintended Consequences in United States Immigration Policy. By 1987, a series of policy metamorphoses resulted in the diversity visa lottery—built to randomly offer access to immigrants from proportionally underrepresented regions and countries, which eventually extended far beyond its originally intended recipients. “Really, it’s a story about how the outcomes and consequences of these policies are really hard to predict,” Goodman says. “In the history of the DV lottery, it wound up doing exactly what people said they wanted it to do, even if that wasn’t what they actually intended. It brought people from countries that didn’t have close relationships with the United States.”
When KC thinks of the opportunities available in America, she thinks about her hero, Steve Jobs. “I just love that man. He had ideas,” KC says. She sees Jobs, though not an immigrant himself, as someone who succeeded because of his unique perspective—something she thinks immigrants can bring to their new country. “There might be a student who comes from the other side of the world with different experiences, hardships American students can’t understand. They might have ideas that could change something.”
Goodman echoed KC’s sentiment. “I think about this moment of the diversity visa lottery and the impact, people imagining that prospective Americans would come here and help us think differently and create connections between people where they didn’t exist before, that kind of imagination and willingness to think about something new. Right now, I think we’re so constrained by the framing of the narrative that immigration is a threat.”
KC wants to be a lawyer, because she believes law practice forces people to change perspectives, to look at an issue from multiple angles. Next year, she plans to attend Caldwell University, a Catholic liberal arts school, an hour’s drive from her current home in New Jersey. She hopes one day to transfer to Barnard College – her dream school, that she views as a group of smart, creative women who represent the diverse possibility and potential of every corner of the world.
“I am a firm believer that change in practice requires a change in mentality and such changes can only be brought through education. I am assured that my voice can be boosted by the quality education provided by your institution,” Garima KC wrote in her college application essay. “I can’t wait for the day when the world will ask me if I have made a difference because I know I will proudly answer: I have.”