The U.S. Needs Immigrant Bus Drivers and Bookkeepers, Too

When my family and I lived in Russia in the 1990s, we became friends with a couple named Yuri and Lyudmila. They lived with their daughter in a tiny apartment on the outskirts of Kiev. Both were college-educated, but Lyudmila earned a pittance in a Soviet-holdover government job, and Yuri was working as a waiter.

One day they called with stunning news: They had won U.S. green cards in a lottery and would be emigrating to Seattle. Theirs were among 50,000 names chosen out of 10 million worldwide who had entered a drawing run by the U.S. State Department.

Yuri and Lyudmila weren’t tech wizards; neither had ever owned a computer, and they didn’t speak much English. But the lottery required only that they have high-school diplomas and wouldn’t need financial assistance from the U.S. government.

Nowadays, Yuri and Lyudmila own a condo near Seattle. He drives a bus and works a second job at Trader Joe’s. She works nights and weekends as a bookkeeper. Their daughter graduated from college and works for a bank in New York City. All three are now U.S. citizens.

The last time I visited them, they gave me a lacquer box with an embossed image of the American flag and told me, in their now-excellent English, how much they loved their adopted home. We laughed, remembering that when we met 20 years ago, they were incredulous when I told them that Americans had dishwashing machines in their kitchens and that almost every home had a telephone. (They had been on a waiting list for more than 11 years to get a phone for their apartment. It never came.)

Now the program that brought Yuri and Lyudmila to the U.S. could end. A pending immigration-reform bill would eliminate the lottery, which is open to people from countries that send relatively few immigrants to the U.S. The bill has been stalled in Congress for months, but now President Barack Obama wants to restart the debate.

True, it’s hard to defend handing out green cards by lottery, rather than choosing people with sought-after skills or money to invest. There’s no humanitarian argument for the lottery, either, since unlike asylum-seekers, they aren’t fleeing persecution in their home countries.

Still, the lottery promotes diversity (the countries with the most winners last year were Ukraine, Nigeria, and Iran), and recent research (pdf) shows that a diverse immigrant pool can produce economic benefits for the host country.

Would the U.S. really have been better off with a few more software engineers or millionaire investors, instead of Yuri and Lyudmila? Seems to me that we still need immigrants who—like many of our own ancestors—are ready to work hard in unglamorous jobs to give their families a better future.

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