As soon as authorities identified the assailant in a New York City vehicular attack on Oct. 31 that left eight people dead, political combat over immigration resumed in Washington. President Donald Trump, who was already seeking to cut legal immigration levels in half over 10 years, blamed current U.S. immigration policies and practices for the terrorist attack allegedly perpetrated by a 29-year-old native of Uzbekistan who entered the U.S. in 2010. Trump pledged to end a visa program that emphasizes geographic diversity and reiterated his determination to practice "extreme vetting" of foreigners.
1. What is a diversity visa?
It’s one way that non-Americans can enter the U.S. to live and work. What distinguishes the Diversity Immigrant Visa from other visas -- like those for the spouse of an American, or workers sponsored by an employer -- is that it’s reserved for people in countries "with historically low rates of immigration to the United States." The 50,000 diversity visas are distributed annually by lottery among six geographic regions, and no single country may receive more than 7 percent of them in a given year.
2. Why is Trump targeting diversity visas?
In a Twitter post, Trump said the alleged perpetrator of the New York attack, Sayfullo Saipov, was admitted to the U.S. on a diversity visa, a statement later confirmed by the Department of Homeland Security. Trump has sought to blame Democrats -- particularly their leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York -- for the existence of the visa lottery, which Trump says should be replaced by "merit-based immigration."
3. Did Democrats create the visa lottery systems?
The diversity visa program was created as part of the Immigration Act of 1990. The legislation was advanced by Democrats, including Schumer, who was then in the U.S. House, as well as Republicans. It passed with bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, signed it into law. Schumer was also part of a bipartisan group of senators who proposed ending the program as part of a larger immigration overhaul passed by the Senate in 2013 but then rejected by House Republicans.
4. What does Trump mean by ‘extreme vetting’?
That’s unclear. Since he was a candidate for the presidency, Trump has argued that the system of screening foreigners for entry to the U.S. is insufficiently rigorous. He issued an executive order on Sept. 24 that -- had it not been blocked by a U.S. district judge -- would have placed limits or a bar on entry by some people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Chad, North Korea and Venezuela, saying those countries didn’t provide the U.S. with adequate information about applicants for U.S. visas. The order didn’t outline new vetting procedures for U.S. authorities; rather, it called on the secretary of Homeland Security and others to evaluate and strengthen current screening measures, "including through improved collection of biometric and biographic data."
5. Have those changes been enacted?
Again, that’s unclear. Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News on Sept. 21 that "extreme vetting measures" have been in place “at the president’s direction" since the beginning of the year. Testifying before the House Committee on Homeland Security on June 7, Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, struggled to provide specifics, other than to say consular officers have been issued “some additional questions" for visa applicants. (Under the established process for screening applicants, consular officers are required to use name-searching algorithms to check for information about an applicant in the records of other government agencies and to refer questionable cases to security officials for further review.) Trump, in one of his tweets after the New York attack, said he "just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program."
The Reference Shelf
- QuickTake explainers on lone wolf terrorists and Islamist terrorism.
- More on Trump vs. Schumer.
- The U.S. State Department explains the diversity visa lottery.
- "Extreme vetting" threatens the privacy of Americans, Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman wrote earlier this year.