Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump Puts New Twist on Visa Misinformation

President Donald Trump repeatedly has mangled the facts about the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program — as we have documented. This week, he found a new way to misrepresent the program.

Trump said those who win the diversity visa lottery are awarded U.S. citizenship. That’s not how it works. Eligible entrants selected in the lottery must pass an extensive background check before they are given green cards, or legal permanent resident status.

Those who get green cards can apply for citizenship in five years. But it’s not automatic. In order to become a citizen, green card holders have to demonstrate “good moral character” — meaning, for example, that they pay their taxes and don’t commit any crimes — and they have to learn English and pass a test on U.S. history and government.

Many who come to the U.S. via the diversity visa program never become naturalized citizens.

Trump’s latest misinformation about the diversity visa program came during remarks at the National Sheriffs’ Association Roundtable on Feb. 13.

Trump, Feb. 13: Anybody in favor of the lottery, where you pick it out and you say, “Good, we have a new United States citizen”? Doesn’t work. And they’re not giving us their finest. That we can tell you.

There’s a lot wrong packed into those few sentences. As he has in the past, Trump suggests foreign governments have a hand in who gets selected. As we have written before, that’s not true.

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, or DV program, uses a computer lottery system to randomly issue up to 50,000 immigrant visas each year — from among millions who apply — to qualified applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. Applicants are self-selected. There is no evidence of other countries gaming the system to offload their undesirable residents.

Trump’s claim that “they’re not giving us their finest” is also misleading. In the past, he has been more direct, saying the U.S. is getting the “worst of the worst” from other countries.

In fact, there is evidence that diversity visa recipients are better educated than most other immigrants — better educated than Americans as a whole — and that they are more likely than most other immigrants to be employed in management, professional and related occupations and less likely to be unemployed.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that about 50 percent of diversity visa recipients have at least a college degree. That’s based on U.S. Census Bureau survey data for the educational attainment of immigrants from countries that have high rates of their residents entering the U.S. with diversity visas between fiscal years 2012 and 2016. Among those immigrants age 25 years and older, 50 percent held a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s a higher percentage than the 32 percent among the overall U.S. population.

The Migration Policy Institute cross-referenced its findings with a federally funded research project that tracked immigrants who obtained green cards in 2003. The project, known as the New Immigrant Survey, also found that 50 percent of diversity visa holders had a college degree or higher (18 percent had a graduate degree). That’s lower than the 80 percent of employment-based immigrants who held a bachelor’s degree or higher. But it’s significantly higher than the 28 percent of family-sponsored immigrants who had a bachelor’s degree or higher, Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at MPI,  told us in a phone interview.

The MPI report concluded that “the high educational attainment of diversity visa holders proves an important lesson for future U.S. immigration reforms: One does not need a ‘merit-based’ system, or one that allows entry only of college- or graduate-educated individuals in order to attract highly skilled immigrants.”

Trump repeatedly has misrepresented how the diversity visa program works, and the quality of people it attracts, as he did in his State of the Union address.

The new wrinkle this week was the incorrect assertion that the diversity visa lottery automatically awards U.S. citizenship.

Those whose names are selected through the diversity visa lottery still must undergo a lengthy background screening. As we have written, this means checks to make sure the person has not committed a crime, doesn’t have a serious health problem, isn’t a terrorist, hasn’t committed fraud, and hasn’t overstayed a visa in the U.S.

There are more than a dozen grounds of inadmissibility, including health issues, criminal activity, national security concerns and the “likelihood of becoming a public charge,” meaning “a person who is primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.” And in order to even be eligible for the lottery, applicants must demonstrate that they have a high school education, or its equivalent, or “two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience to perform.”

Provided all of that checks out, the lottery winners are granted legal permanent resident status, otherwise known as a green card. That’s not U.S. citizenship, though it puts them on the path to apply for citizenship.

In order to apply for citizenship, one must hold a green card for at least five years; demonstrate “continuous residence” in the U.S. for five years; be able to read, write and speak basic English; and pass a brief oral exam on U.S. history and government. Applicants also must “be a person of good moral character,” meaning, for example, that they pay their taxes and child support and have committed no crimes.

Over the last several years, immigrants spent a median of seven years in lawful permanent resident status before becoming citizens, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

No perfect data exists on the naturalization rates of diversity visa holders, but a report issued by USCIS in 2016 looked at the 10-year naturalization rates for various categories of immigrants. Those who got legal permanent resident status through the diversity visa program were part of an “others” category. Among those in that “others” category from 2004 — the most recent cohort included in the analysis — 58 percent went on to gain citizenship. That’s not a perfect analysis, as the “others” category includes some who came to the U.S. through programs other than the diversity visa lottery, but it demonstrates the point that not all green card holders become citizens.

On Feb. 14, Trump threw his support behind an immigration plan proposed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and others that would eliminate the diversity visa program. The same day, a bipartisan group of senators agreed on an immigration plan that would keep the diversity visa program.

We take no position on the future of the program. Our role is to provide accurate information about a program that has been misrepresented by the president.

Share the Facts
FactCheck.org rating logo FactCheck.org Rating:
Distorts the Facts
"Anybody in favor of the [diversity visa] lottery, where you pick it out and you say, 'Good, we have a new United States citizen'?"
National Sheriffs’ Association Roundtable
Tuesday, February 13, 2018