Shortly after last month’s vehicle attack in Manhattan, President Donald Trump, in a tweet, called on Congress to eliminate the “Diversity Visa Lottery Program,” which has been around for almost 30 years. Trump’s response may not be surprising – it’s only the latest in a long line of nativist, anti-immigrant attacks from the president – but the proposal to terminate the program remains incredibly dangerous. Sadly, a series of White House statements last week, which tried to link these diversity visas to potential acts of terrorism, shows that the Trump administration is only going to continue to target this vital program.
The Diversity Immigrant Visa (DV) program, as it’s officially known, is an indispensable component of our immigration system, a symbol that the United States is, and will forever be, a nation of immigrants, and that those seeking a better life can strive and prosper on our shores. At a time when xenophobia is gaining frightening force, it becomes even more important to protect the DV program.
The DV program was established in 1990 to help predominantly Irish and Italian immigrants, and redress the legacy of our discriminatory immigration policies. Over time, applications from Africa and Asia increased, while applications from Europe dwindled. The program enabled citizens of countries with fewer American immigrants to come to the U.S., increasing the cultural, racial, and religious diversity of our immigrant pool.
In 2015, almost 9.4 million people applied for the 55,000 diversity visas. This process isn’t a simple one. After proving sufficient educational or work experience, and providing detailed background information, applicants are only at the beginning of the process. Next, they submit a dossier of supporting documents, including original birth and marriage certificates, criminal records, and military records. If their documents pass review, their reward is to undergo an invasive medical exam, before next being interviewed by a consular officer about nearly every detail of their life. Even after jumping through all of these hoops, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents can still refuse entry to the diversity visa-holder, oftentimes for vague or unspecified reasons.
By giving immigrants from under-represented countries the opportunity to move here and freely express their cultural and spiritual identities, we reaffirm our commitment to an open and tolerant society that respects individual liberties and free thought. Republicans on the far right who want to end the program, use concerns about terrorism as a pretext for their anti-immigrant agenda. They want to hold our country back, ignoring freedom of expression and freedom of religion. But we know that it’s exactly these values that enable the best in our country.
When we fall into the trap of treating the man who attacked New York as a foreign threat, when we look to immigration restrictions for protection, we miss the sad truth: This was a thoroughly American crime. Yes, the alleged perpetrator was an immigrant, but he had been an American since 2010. The evil ideology that propelled him to violence was not something that entered from abroad, it was something he found here at home, just like the attackers who killed dozens in Corning, Calif.; Sutherland Springs, Texas; and Las Vegas.
If we responded to one crime by killing the DV program, we would reward the perpetrators by letting them define our values, betraying centuries of American principals and belittling our standing in the world. The danger comes not just from those propelled by hate, but the countless others whose fear forces them to seek safety in false promises, no matter how misguided. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”
Even if we were willing to sacrifice the ethos that defines a just society, we’d gain nothing in return. If a criminal were misguided enough to use the DV program to enter the U.S., they’d face a maze of vetting procedures and safeguards before they came close to our shores. The facts are clear: The DV program is a threat to the white nationalist identity, not public safety.
Rather than targeting the white supremacists that kill far more Americans than people born abroad, the president is once-again pivoting to prejudice, unwilling to advance real solutions that make our communities safe. We, as a nation, cannot and must not lose sight of our values by embracing a nativist worldview. We mustn’t let violent and venomous vitriol blind us to real and far more dangerous problems.
Today, fair-minded leaders and everyday people must publicly and vocally affirm our commitment to religious freedom. Every time we see the nativist narrative creeping into public discourse, we must push back. It can be as simple as writing letters to editors or speaking out at community board meetings. Help make sure that when your neighbors read the news, they see much-needed reminders that even in the darkest of times, there will always be Americans fighting for the vision of an open, just, and inclusive society.
At the time of writing, Albert Cahn was Legal Director of the New York Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.