Guide to the Diversity Visa: Demographics, Criminality, and Terrorism Risk

The alleged attacker in Tuesday’s Halloween terrorist attack in New York City that murdered eight people and injured 12 was Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan.  Saipov entered the United States in 2010 on a green card he won through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (also known as the diversity visa or green card lottery).  Many commenters on the attack, including President Trump, have partially blamed the diversity visa for this terrorist attack.  This post will explain some of the basics of the diversity visa, the countries-of-origin for those who enter on it, their incarceration rates, and terrorism risks.

The Diversity Visa

Congress created the diversity visa as part of the Immigration Act of 1990, in order to provide lawful immigration opportunities for Irish immigrants who were fleeing an economic crisis in their home country.  Then-Congressman Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was important in pushing for the idea to be included in the bi-partisan 1990 Immigration Act, which Congress passed by huge majorities and President George H.W. Bush signed. 

Fifty thousand green cards are awarded through the diversity lottery each year, which is run in early May.  Principal applicants for the diversity visa must have at least a high school education, two years of work experience, and not be inadmissible under U.S. immigration law in order to receive a diversity visa.  The principal applicants may bring their spouse and minor unmarried children with them, but they do not count against the 50,000 cap.  Those who enter the running for the diversity visa lottery may only be from certain countries that sent fewer than 50,000 non-diversity visa immigrants to the United States in the five years prior to the lottery.

Countries of Origin for the Diversity Visa

In 2015, about 9.4 million people entered the lottery for those 50,000 green cards.  They had about five million minor unmarried children and spouses.  Citizens from countries other than Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born), Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam were eligible to apply for the 2018 diversity visa.

About one million people gained lawful permanent residency status through diversity visas from 1993 through 2015 (Table 1 at end of post).  Saipov is from Uzbekistan, which has sent 29,665 immigrants on the diversity visa, which accounts for about 43 percent of the total number of green cards issued to Uzbeks since 1993.  Only Algerian, Bulgarian, and Albanian immigrants were more likely to enter on a diversity visa.  Ethiopia, Nigeria, Egypt, Ukraine, Albania, Bangladesh, Ghana, Bulgaria, and Morocco all sent more diversity visa immigrants to the United States than Uzbekistan.

Like other immigration liberalizations that Congress intended to apply to only Europeans, the composition of the diversity visa quickly morphed when it contacted reality.  Europeans won a full 91 percent of all diversity visas in 1993, the first year the program was in operation (Figure 1).  In 2015, only 24 percent of diversity immigrants came from Europe while 30 percent came from Asia and 41 percent from Africa (Figure 2).  As for the Irish, only 12,221 won the lottery in 1993 while 45 won in 2015.

Figure 1

Diversity Visa Admissions by Continent of Origin, 1993

Sources: State Department and Department of Homeland Security.

 

Figure 2

Diversity Visa Admissions by Continent of Origin, 2015

Sources: State Department and Department of Homeland Security.

The share of diversity visas issued to Europeans fell precipitously after 1994 when the Irish economy started to recover (Figure 3).

Figure 3

European Share of Diversity Visa

Sources: State Department and Department of Homeland Security.

 

Terrorism

Many immigrants to the United States initially enter on one type of visa and then adjust their status to a green card or lawful permanent residency.  A foreigner who is lawfully present on U.S. soil can apply for the diversity visa if they are otherwise eligible.  That is exactly what the wife of Egyptian-born Hesham Mohamed Hedayet did.  He originally entered on a tourist visa, later applied for asylum, and only gained a green card when his wife won the diversity visa.  Hedayet murdered two and injured four in a terrorist attack at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002.  If he intended to carry out an attack prior to entering the United States, the diversity visa did not give him the opportunity because he was already here.  Assuming he intended to carry out an attack before arriving, and there is no evidence of that as he was here for a decade before he murdered two people, the diversity visa was not the potential weak link in the vetting system.  

Syed Harris Ahmed from Pakistan and Abdurasul Juraboev from Uzbekistan entered with diversity visas and were also convicted of planning terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.  A handful of immigrants who had diversity visas at one point were convicted of material support for terrorism or other offenses aimed at supporting foreign terrorists.  Hedayet is the only deadly terrorist who had a diversity visa at some point in his immigration history, although he did not enter on it – he murdered 2 people, or about 0.07 percent of all those killed by a foreign-born terrorist in an attack on U.S. soil from 1975-Halloween 2017.

The diversity visa is not an efficient way for terrorists to enter the country.  As mentioned above, about 9.4 million people entered the lottery for 50,000 green cards in 2015.  If a terrorist lives in a country whose nationals can apply, he or she would have had a 1 in 188 chance of winning the lottery in 2015.  The terrorist would then have to get through the normal procedures applied to every green card applicant.  Those are not attractive odds for a terrorist intent on attacking U.S. soil.  Furthermore, there is no indication that Saipov intended to commit a terrorist attack before coming to the United States.  Officials said that Saipov began planning his attack a year ago and then decided to use a truck two months ago, long after he entered in 2010.

The diversity visa is not a wise choice for foreign-born terrorists who concoct their plans overseas.  The small number of people murdered by foreign-born terrorists who actually entered on the visa, eight out of 3,037 since 1975, shows just how rarely it is used for such purposes.  Even then, betting vetting would have stopped Saipov as his terrorism plans were recent.  Based entirely on the New York Halloween terrorist attack, about 177,394 diversity visas have been granted for each person murdered in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil by someone who entered on such a visa.

Crime

Public safety also includes crime.  The American Community Survey reports the number of people incarcerated by their country of birth but not the particular visa they entered on.  The 2015 incarceration rates for immigrants from the 20 countries that sent the greatest number of diversity immigrants from 1993 to 2015 are all lower than the incarceration rate for native-born Americans (Figure 4).  The number of Uzbeks incarcerated is so small that it is statistically indistinguishable from zero.  The 2015 incarceration rate for immigrants from these 20 countries is 0.28 percent – about one-fifth of the native incarceration rate. 

Figure 4

Incarceration Rates by Country of Birth, Ages 18-54.  

Source: Author’s analysis of the 2015 1-year American Community Survey data. Special thanks to Michelangelo Landgrave for assembling these numbers.

Immigrants from the top 20 diversity visa dominant sending countries are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans (Figure 5).  All of these 20 countries together have an incarceration rate of 0.20 percent – about one-eighth that of native-born Americans.  Figure 5 shows the 2015 incarceration rates for immigrants from the top 20 countries that sent the highest percentage of diversity visa immigrants relative to all who earned a green card.  Benin and the Democratic Republic of the Congo sent a higher proportion of diversity visa immigrants, relative to all immigrants they sent, than two of the countries in Figure 5, but their U.S. populations are so small that they aren’t counted in the American Community Survey.  I filled that gap by choosing countries with the next highest percentage of diversity immigrants relative to all immigrants.

Figure 5

Incarceration Rates by Country of Birth for Diversity Visa Dominant Countries, Ages 18-54

Source: Author’s analysis of the 2015 1-year American Community Survey data. Special thanks to Michelangelo Landgrave for assembling these numbers.

 

Conclusion

The diversity visa is a relatively small green card category that has allowed in about a million legal immigrant principals since 1993, or about 5 percent of the total.  As far as we know, immigrants who entered on the diversity visa are responsible for committing one terrorist attack on U.S. soil that murdered eight people.  Foreign-born people from countries that have sent many diversity visa immigrants to the United States have lower incarceration rates than native-born Americans.  Calls to end the diversity visa based on a single deadly terrorist attack are premature. 


Table 1

Diversity Visa Admissions by Country of Origin, 1993-2015

  All Green Cards Diversity Percent of Immigrants on Diversity Percent of Diversity Immigrants Relative to All Diversity Visas
Algeria 21,728 11,175 51.43% 1.18%
Bulgaria 70,332 33,898 48.20% 3.59%
Albania 90,121 42,419 47.07% 4.50%
Uzbekistan 68,364 29,665 43.39% 3.15%
Togo 22,931 9,857 42.99% 1.05%
Lithuania 26,674 11,107 41.64% 1.18%
Benin 4,774 1,954 40.93% 0.21%
Morocco 76,112 30,398 39.94% 3.22%
Cameroon 47,951 16,297 33.99% 1.73%
Tajikistan 4,867 1,644 33.78% 0.17%
Congo, Democratic Republic 26,873 8,852 32.94% 0.94%
Egypt 148,609 48,178 32.42% 5.11%
Ethiopia 200,417 60,194 30.03% 6.38%
Nepal 94,466 28,025 29.67% 2.97%
Turkmenistan 3,171 915 28.86% 0.10%
Congo, Republic 14,611 4,026 27.55% 0.43%
Armenia 52,321 14,297 27.33% 1.52%
Kenya 103,303 27,094 26.23% 2.87%
Ghana 132,664 34,755 26.20% 3.69%
Nigeria 214,372 56,049 26.15% 5.94%
Romania 100,436 25,845 25.73% 2.74%
Turkey 77,644 19,148 24.66% 2.03%
Fiji 26,759 6,475 24.20% 0.69%
Sierra Leone 38,890 8,969 23.06% 0.95%
Belarus 45,388 10,314 22.72% 1.09%
Georgia 20,966 4,583 21.86% 0.49%
Kyrgyzstan 9,643 2,099 21.77% 0.22%
Niger 4,845 994 20.52% 0.11%
Sudan 53,311 10,695 20.06% 1.13%
Burkina Faso 4,727 917 19.40% 0.10%
Moldova 37,510 7,236 19.29% 0.77%
Ukraine 253,865 47,554 18.73% 5.04%
Sri Lanka 32,408 6,061 18.70% 0.64%
Liberia 73,123 13,377 18.29% 1.42%
Bangladesh 217,098 38,833 17.89% 4.12%
Macedonia 17,042 2,842 16.68% 0.30%
Mongolia 7,640 1,232 16.13% 0.13%
Azerbaijan 19,451 3,077 15.82% 0.33%
Cote d’Ivoire 20,631 3,013 14.60% 0.32%
Kazakhstan 27,516 4,013 14.58% 0.43%
Madagascar 1,124 161 14.32% 0.02%
Eritrea 23,113 3,143 13.60% 0.33%
Guinea-Bissau 1,580 211 13.35% 0.02%
Switzerland 16,845 2,169 12.88% 0.23%
Kosovo 4,218 538 12.75% 0.06%
Libya 5,133 632 12.31% 0.07%
Latvia 9,532 1,131 11.87% 0.12%
Serbia 4,255 488 11.47% 0.05%
Uganda 17,215 1,969 11.44% 0.21%
Rwanda 6,752 762 11.29% 0.08%
Ireland 29,032 3,250 11.19% 0.34%
Saudi Arabia 25,323 2,831 11.18% 0.30%
Tunisia 7,368 822 11.16% 0.09%
Poland 202,289 22,484 11.11% 2.38%
Germany 138,880 15,271 11.00% 1.62%
Czechoslovakia (former) 12,752 1,327 10.41% 0.14%
Qatar 2,592 267 10.30% 0.03%
Mauritius 1,428 147 10.29% 0.02%
South Africa 57,953 5,761 9.94% 0.61%
Guinea 15,483 1,537 9.93% 0.16%
New Zealand 18,383 1,797 9.78% 0.19%
Russia 256,770 25,041 9.75% 2.66%
Papua New Guinea 418 40 9.57% 0.00%
Hungary 22,723 2,171 9.55% 0.23%
Soviet Union (former) 195,502 18,299 9.36% 1.94%
Gabon 1,684 156 9.26% 0.02%
Iran 232,402 21,057 9.06% 2.23%
Malawi 2,064 186 9.01% 0.02%
Tanzania 16,922 1,524 9.01% 0.16%
Senegal 17,942 1,578 8.80% 0.17%
Oman 1,378 121 8.78% 0.01%
United Arab Emirates 13,215 1,155 8.74% 0.12%
Australia 48,126 4,167 8.66% 0.44%
Austria 8,784 758 8.63% 0.08%
Estonia 4,847 403 8.31% 0.04%
Czech Republic 6,402 517 8.08% 0.05%
Greece 20,343 1,612 7.92% 0.17%
Iceland 2,005 152 7.58% 0.02%
Botswana 791 59 7.46% 0.01%
Chad 1,405 103 7.33% 0.01%
Zambia 8,201 594 7.24% 0.06%
Finland 7,022 498 7.09% 0.05%
Sweden 22,971 1,622 7.06% 0.17%
Djibouti 1,190 82 6.89% 0.01%
Zimbabwe 13,314 893 6.71% 0.09%
France 74,745 4,993 6.68% 0.53%
Slovakia 3,757 247 6.57% 0.03%
Indonesia 50,330 3,164 6.29% 0.34%
Italy 52,046 3,197 6.14% 0.34%
Curacao 49 3 6.12% 0.00%
Cyprus 2,532 154 6.08% 0.02%
Belgium 11,467 660 5.76% 0.07%
Mali 6,722 365 5.43% 0.04%
Netherlands 25,919 1,396 5.39% 0.15%
Tonga 6,040 286 4.74% 0.03%
Japan 133,350 5,749 4.31% 0.61%
Burundi 5,842 244 4.18% 0.03%
Spain 34,765 1,439 4.14% 0.15%
Kuwait 20,340 831 4.09% 0.09%
Burma 121,428 4,865 4.01% 0.52%
Denmark 9,771 387 3.96% 0.04%
Angola 2,545 100 3.93% 0.01%
Namibia 872 34 3.90% 0.00%
Croatia 17,749 679 3.83% 0.07%
Macau 3,470 128 3.69% 0.01%
Palau 136 5 3.68% 0.00%
Israel 79,216 2,902 3.66% 0.31%
Cambodia 55,809 2,026 3.63% 0.21%
Venezuela 147,742 5,337 3.61% 0.57%
Norway 6,651 226 3.40% 0.02%
Peru 257,629 8,650 3.36% 0.92%
Pakistan 304,020 10,179 3.35% 1.08%
Luxembourg 471 15 3.18% 0.00%
Slovenia 1,605 48 2.99% 0.01%
Taiwan 161,568 4,639 2.87% 0.49%
Montenegro 1,394 40 2.87% 0.00%
Portugal 23,851 679 2.85% 0.07%
Yemen 49,556 1,358 2.74% 0.14%
Monaco 78 2 2.56% 0.00%
Singapore 14,626 370 2.53% 0.04%
Lesotho 251 6 2.39% 0.00%
Somalia 99,780 2,342 2.35% 0.25%
Bahrain 1,954 45 2.30% 0.00%
Malta 1,001 23 2.30% 0.00%
Hong Kong 83,306 1,889 2.27% 0.20%
Malaysia 39,194 810 2.07% 0.09%
Seychelles 195 4 2.05% 0.00%
Unknown 28,065 535 1.91% 0.06%
Bolivia 40,859 783 1.92% 0.08%
Argentina 81,114 1,521 1.88% 0.16%
Mozambique 1,112 20 1.80% 0.00%
Aruba 668 11 1.65% 0.00%
Brunei 429 7 1.63% 0.00%
Gambia 10,282 167 1.62% 0.02%
Syria 54,920 871 1.59% 0.09%
Swaziland 318 5 1.57% 0.00%
Jordan 73,909 1,125 1.52% 0.12%
Equatorial Guinea 211 3 1.42% 0.00%
Mauritania 6,089 85 1.40% 0.01%
Afghanistan 52,579 732 1.39% 0.08%
Lebanon 72,017 992 1.38% 0.11%
Paraguay 7,584 94 1.24% 0.01%
United Kingdom 234,161 2,866 1.22% 0.30%
Cuba 630,056 7,571 1.20% 0.80%
Brazil 205,681 2,446 1.19% 0.26%
Ecuador 204,339 2,372 1.16% 0.25%
Central African Republic 1,335 15 1.12% 0.00%
Trinidad and Tobago 85,419 953 1.12% 0.10%
South Sudan 277 3 1.08% 0.00%
Suriname 3,705 37 1.00% 0.00%
Bahamas 7,664 76 0.99% 0.01%
Chile 36,196 343 0.95% 0.04%
Cape Verde 26,687 250 0.94% 0.03%
Thailand 127,313 1,004 0.79% 0.11%
Canada 298,671 2,316 0.78% 0.25%
Uruguay 18,691 128 0.68% 0.01%
Bosnia-Herzegovina 121,026 801 0.66% 0.08%
United States 3,193 20 0.63% 0.00%
Costa Rica 37,479 231 0.62% 0.02%
Barbados 13,235 81 0.61% 0.01%
Samoa 3,753 22 0.59% 0.00%
Panama 33,178 192 0.58% 0.02%
Dominica 8,194 42 0.51% 0.00%
Iraq 174,316 805 0.46% 0.09%
Grenada 13,818 56 0.41% 0.01%
Belize 16,526 66 0.40% 0.01%
Saint Lucia 9,957 38 0.38% 0.00%
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 6,046 20 0.33% 0.00%
Nicaragua 131,175 432 0.33% 0.05%
Honduras 135,484 435 0.32% 0.05%
Guyana 135,606 411 0.30% 0.04%
French Polynesia 337 1 0.30% 0.00%
Antigua-Barbuda 7,117 21 0.30% 0.00%
British Virgin Islands 878 2 0.23% 0.00%
Saint Kitts-Nevis 3,564 8 0.22% 0.00%
Anguilla 463 1 0.22% 0.00%
Guatemala 255,110 437 0.17% 0.05%
Laos 28,649 36 0.13% 0.00%
India 1,198,749 1,421 0.12% 0.15%
Bermuda 1,717 2 0.12% 0.00%
Haiti 396,924 292 0.07% 0.03%
Bhutan 49,881 34 0.07% 0.00%
China, People’s Republic 1,206,575 793 0.07% 0.08%
Colombia 414,973 248 0.06% 0.03%
Korea, South 152,483 68 0.04% 0.01%
Dominican Republic 648,938 168 0.03% 0.02%
Philippines 1,074,811 162 0.02% 0.02%
Jamaica 359,859 53 0.01% 0.01%
Vietnam 600,992 38 0.01% 0.00%
Mexico 3,175,771 183 0.01% 0.02%
El Salvador 432,535 20 0.00% 0.00%
All other countries1 73 0 0.00% 0.00%
Cayman Islands 704 0 0.00% 0.00%
Korea, North 432 0 0.00% 0.00%
Marshall Islands 586 0 0.00% 0.00%
Montserrat 834 0 0.00% 0.00%
Netherlands Antilles (former) 67 0 0.00% 0.00%
Serbia and Montenegro (former) 232 0 0.00% 0.00%
Sint Maarten 90 0 0.00% 0.00%
Turks and Caicos Islands 38 0 0.00% 0.00%
Total 19,101,716 943,049    

Sources: State Department and Department of Homeland Security.