Trump’s recent announcement that he plans to terminate the Diversity Visa Program is welcome, though it is too late. Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, the jihadist who killed at least eight people in last week’s attacks in New York, entered the US as part of the program. Once again, it seems that we need a tragedy to happen in order to take sensible measures to limit jihadi terrorism.
I admit that I have not always felt this way. The “green card lottery,” as it is commonly known, has in the past seemed to me to represent the best of America. Granting a fresh start to those who may suffer under political or economic oppression, and doing this without judgement as to their creed or nationality, has done much for our nation.
However, the recent attack has made it clear that the system, despite its good intentions, is simply dangerous. Now, with the US facing an unprecedented threat from jihadists, it represents nothing more than a gaping hole in our immigration system.
The Diversity Visa Program
The current form of the Diversity Visa Program dates back to 1990, when current Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer introduced a House Bill that led to the creation of the program. In recent days, Trump and other prominent right-wing commentators have directly linked the program to the New York attacks.
It’s not hard to see why. At present, the program allows 50,000 people a year to enter the US. They apply online, and are accepted totally at random. There are no checks as to their political or criminal background, and they need not even have a high-school education.
And though 50,000 people a year might not sound like that many for a country the size of the US, in reality the number is much higher. The visa issued to winners of the lottery allows their family to also come to the US. Family visas are issued to family members no matter their country of origin, and this introduces a further security flaw into the system.
Not that it is very secure in the first place. Among the most likely to apply to the program are citizens from countries well known to harbor jihadists – specifically Middle Eastern, North African and Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Turkey, Yemen, and Uzbekistan.
This should not be surprising. Failed states are more likely to see spiking levels of jihadism, and citizens of them are also more likely to want to leave. Though in many cases this correlation is no more than that, recently there have been worrying reports of the Diversity Program being used to directly further the jihadist cause.
A Corrupt System
The problem is that not only is the Diversity Program flawed in itself, it is also very open to manipulation. There have been reports, for instance, that in Bangladesh “enterprising businessmen” have entered thousands of people into the program, so that they can later extort money from whoever wins.
The program also represents a direct security breach, in that it can be exploited in order to attack the US. Radical Islamists can enter many of their adherents into the program, and if enough names are enrolled, it is almost a certainty that one or two people will gain legal access to the US.
As we saw in the recent attack, just one jihadist, operating alone, can cause much destruction and death.
Indeed, it is hard not to see the program, as it operates today, as anything more than offering a tool for jihadists to legally enter the country. In the same way that ISIS has encouraged its members to take advantage of generous US gun laws to legally obtain weapons like the now-infamous AR-15, it seems that jihadists are able to use our own ideals and values against us.
The Case For Reform
As I’ve said, in principle I think there is a place for programs that are superficially similar to the diversity program. The problem, at the moment, is the clear security breech opened up by making such programs available to everyone, including citizens of states where jihadists operate.
The situation is made even more absurd by the fact that citizens of many of the oldest allies of the US – the UK and Canada among them – are barred from entering the lottery. This means that the supposedly “democratic” nature of the program is directly undermined – why accept applicants from Libya, but not the UK?
In short, it is clear that something needs to be done in order to eliminate the weaknesses it introduces into our immigration system.
Reforming the system need not be difficult. Implementing Trump’s proposed ban on immigration from Muslim majority countries would be one way forward, but this is problematic for a number of reasons. As Andrew McCarthy has argued, that ban provides no additional security. In addition, it would undermine the sole benefit of the Diversity Program – allowing people from poor countries a genuine chance to make a new life.
Another, much better, approach, would be to take the logical step of vetting winners for adherence to extremist belief systems, as the National Review has recently argued for. Trump’s “extreme vetting” procedures remain inadequately defined, but some form of extra security is clearly needed.
Given the difficulties of implementing such a system, however, the rational course at the moment would be to shut down the Diversity Visa Program immediately. Let’s, at least, close this security hole until we are able to better track who is entering the country.
Sam Bocetta is a defense contractor for the U.S. Navy, a defense analyst, and a freelance journalist. He specializes in finding radical — and often heretical — solutions to “impossible” ballistics problems. He is an independent correspondent for Gun News Daily, writing about naval engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, marine ops, program management, defense contracting, export control, international commerce, patents, InfoSec, cryptography, cyberwarfare, and cyberdefense.