The Myth of the Unskilled Diversity Visa Immigrant
Earlier this month, the State Department began accepting entries into the annual Diversity Visa lottery. Meanwhile, President Trump is travelling across the country, promising to end the program at rally after rally, claiming it brings the “worst of the worst.”
That claim is patently false. The Diversity Visa program offers people from countries with low immigration to the United States the chance to participate in the American dream legally. But this program is not merely justified by American altruism. By bringing skilled immigrants who contribute positively to the American economy, raise the productivity of native-born workers, and are likely to integrate well into American society, the program greatly benefits Americans.
The widespread myth of the unskilled Diversity Visa holder is exactly that: a myth. The average Diversity Visa participant is better educated than the average native-born American adult or the average immigrant adult in general. The median diversity-based immigrant has a bachelor’s degree while both the median non-diversity immigrant and the median native adult have only a high school diploma. Diversity Visa holders also speak better English and are less likely to be unemployed than other immigrants.
Participation in the Diversity Visa requires a high school diploma or work experience generally requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. And beyond the legal requirements, participation requires the means to pay application fees, travel to a US embassy or consulate to interview as part of the rigorous background check, and to buy plane tickets to get to the United States. In some countries, the costs can quickly add up to more than what most people in that country make in a year. The result of this is that while it may be a lottery, the Diversity Visa program implicitly selects for skills.
Now, it is reasonable to argue that we could do better. Sure, you might say, Diversity Visa immigrants are above average in our current system, but under a merit-based system, we could select for skills directly rather than just implicitly. But only selecting on the basis of skills underestimates the spillover benefits of immigrant diversity and leaves many of those benefits on the table. There are three other key ways that the Diversity Visa program helps Americans: a more diverse immigrant flow means a larger pool of high-skilled talent to choose from, a more productive American economy, and an immigrant population more likely to integrate successfully.
To the first point, the Diversity Visa program helps make the United States more attractive to high-skilled temporary workers from around the world. We would expect that high-skilled workers are more willing and likely to work where there are larger communities from their own country. And when we look at the data, more Diversity Visas being awarded to a country in one year is associated with more H-1B visas (those given to high-skilled workers) awarded to workers from that country the following year. We should bear in mind that this effect might be even larger if most H-1Bs were not subject to a cap that turns the temporary worker program into a zero-sum completion for a mostly fixed number of visas. In any case, the positive and statistically significant effect shows how selecting for diversity can help the United States tap into new sources of talent.
Secondly, the Diversity Visa program helps the United States capture some of the economic gains to be had from a more diverse immigrant population. There is a large empirical literature looking at the effects of immigrant diversity on economic performance. Overwhelmingly, the literature concludes that on net, more diversity among the countries of birth of the immigrant population causes higher native wages, more jobs, higher productivity, more innovation, and more growth. One of the most recent studies on the matter shows the positive effect of diversity is not limited to the top end of the income distribution, but that the gains from diversity are shared as much by low-wage natives as higher-wage ones. The takeaway is that lawmakers looking to capitalize on the economic benefits of immigration should be interested in tools that make immigration flows more diverse.
And finally, a more diverse immigrant population means better immigrant assimilation and integration. Immigrants who arrive to find large communities in the United States from their home countries have fewer interactions with natives, are more likely to live in enclaves, and feel less pressure to assimilate. The Diversity Visa, on the other hand, selects for immigrants from countries from which the United States admits low numbers of immigrants, ensuring greater assimilation pressure.
Simply put, ending the Diversity Visa would choke off a skilled flow of immigrants, narrow the application pool of high-skilled temporary workers, and homogenize immigration flows — all to our cultural and economic detriment.
Jeremy Neufeld is an immigration policy analyst at the Niskanen Center.