Debating diversity: The Diversity Visa lottery and the 2016 election

January 15, 2017
By: Carly Goodman

Last summer I volunteered at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where the program embraced diversity. Speakers, delegates, and attendees were women, people of color, people of different gender identities and sexual orientations, disabled people, immigrants, and people of many faiths. Bringing diverse experiences and different perspectives, they insisted that the U.S. must address meaningfully its persistent problems: racism, mass incarceration, gun violence, misogyny, homophobia, climate change, inequality. The program seemed to echo President Obama in his final State of the Union address in January 2016: “The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness.” Today, the country prepares to inaugurate a president-elect who, as a candidate, spewed hateful, racist, and misogynist vitriol and whose administration aims to “make America white again,” in the words of Charles M. Blow. Consensus about the value of America’s diversity, however deep it once was, appears under threat.

I wrote my dissertation about the U.S. Diversity Visa lottery, a policy that, as part of the Immigration Act of 1990, makes immigrant visas available to people from countries underrepresented in U.S. immigration. Writing about its 1980s legislation, I discovered that although talk about diversity was integral to the policy’s successful adoption, different stakeholders understood the word in different ways. Diversity talk was malleable and sometimes masked different politics and policy priorities.

As policymakers worked through the 1980s to reform overall U.S. immigration policy, one immigrant group emerged to voice its protest against a system it believed was unfair. As Ireland’s economy struggled in the 1980s, thousands of Irish left to go to the United States. Unable to get family visas through the legal immigration system in place since the Immigration Act of 1965, many arrived as visitors and overstayed, finding themselves out of status and seen as “illegal.” Living in the shadows, in fear of being exploited or deported, a group of these “new” Irish immigrants organized to advocate for a policy solution to their plight. They gained attention and traction by linking their story to the historic role played by Irish immigrants in American history, and by speaking to powerful Irish American policymakers with large Irish American constituencies. Tapping into what the historian Matthew Frye Jacobson called the white ethnic revival, Irish immigrant advocates argued that what seemed to be the exclusion of white European immigrants from the United States (in the wake of the 1965 Act) was unjust. They were successful; between 1986 and 1990 Congress created several small visa programs for white European immigrants, particularly Irish, who could not immigrate through the existing family visa system.

In an effort to create a more permanent solution, Irish immigrants and their allies continued to lobby, pivoting from talk of special treatment for the Irish to broader, more inclusive language that resonated in the late 1980s with policymakers and the public, for whom multiculturalism and diversity represented or projected positive cultural values. They seized a tenet of the 1981 Report by the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy that articulated “cultural diversity” as a key goal of U.S. immigration reform for the 1980s: “Permitting, and indeed encouraging, the migration of new groups of immigrants broadens the diversity and characteristics of new immigrants and the richness of their contributions to U.S. culture and society.” By advocating for immigrant diversity, the group signaled its willingness to work with other ethnic groups involved in ongoing immigration reform efforts between 1986 and 1990.

But “diversity” had many valences, and Irish immigrant advocates also deployed the concept of diversity to stoke anxiety about the racial, ethnic, and linguistic makeup of recent immigration. In 1987 testimony before the Senate immigration subcommittee, the Irish Immigration Reform Movement argued that rapid changes in immigrant demographics since the 1960s – referring to the uptick in immigration from Asian and Latin American countries – had strained “the ability of the general population to transcend ethnic and generation boundaries to work together as one.” Including more Irish and European immigrants in the mix would diversify U.S. immigration – making it slightly less Latin American and Asian – and, the group claimed, more immigrant diversity would preserve a model of immigrant assimilation and prevent any particular ethnic or national group from dominating. The group thus used the term diversity to speak to an audience of policymakers who were less than enthused about the recent demographic changes evident in the immigration stream.

Speaking the language of diversity was effective, and policymakers came to agree that there should be space for immigrants without family ties to come to the United States. They were thinking primarily of Europeans who had previously dominated waves of immigration, but who could no longer gain lawful access to the U.S. Temporary visa lotteries that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s continued to privilege white Europeans. But policymakers working on the permanent diversity visa program for the 1990 Immigration Act, including then-Representative Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Representative Howard Berman (D-CA), whose Brooklyn and Los Angeles districts were unusually diverse already, made tweaks to the policy, making it more expansive than originally dreamed of and inclusive of more countries. With a goal of appearing fair – answering in part criticisms that diversity visas should not be a special gift exclusively for the Irish – legislators crafted a program that targeted the regions underrepresented in contemporary immigration: Africa as well as Europe. The program they devised became unexpectedly important in sub-Saharan Africa, where it fostered significant new immigration to the United States.

During the immigration legislation, the concept of diversity was flexible enough to serve competing interest groups with different visions for what a diverse America looks like. As the legislation showed, even when diversity talk had political power, its slipperiness masked bubbling anxieties about U.S. demographics. Although talk of diversity sought to provide cover for supporters’ anxiety about non-white immigrants and indeed their wish to see more white immigrants, the law as implemented actually had the effect of unexpectedly producing more racial and ethnic diversity, dramatically increasing the rate of black African immigrants settling in communities in the United States. In small part owing to the Diversity Visa lottery, the United States is undergoing demographic changes and will soon be majority non-white.

Commentators predicted that an increasingly diverse electorate would endanger any GOP candidate in the 2016 race, suggesting that Republicans needed to attract non-white voters in order to win. In my research, I had seen that different interest groups used talk of diversity to describe different outcomes. The flexibility of the term made it politically useful, and it seemed likely to become more useful as the country actually became more diverse.

And yet the eventual Republican nominee was the person whose campaign tapped most effectively into white anxiety and anger about diversity and racism. The incoming President-elect won a narrow electoral victory by signaling his support for a white ethno-nationalist vision of American citizenship, and his cabinet is on track to be one of the least demographically (or otherwise) diverse in recent history, eschewing even nominal interest in diversity as a shared value.

As the American people have become more diverse, with the share of the U.S. population that is foreign born nearing a historic high, and U.S. immigrants coming from countries all over the world, is consensus about diversity as a shared value waning? Perhaps it is – or perhaps ours is a moment to redefine what we mean when we invoke it. If different interest groups no longer share the language of diversity to support different visions of what a diverse America looks like, perhaps this is an opportunity to replace it with an ideal that is more robust or radical, an anti-racist politics that cannot provide cover for a policy aimed at increasing the immigration of white people.

In the dark days ahead, I will hold on to what I witnessed last summer at the DNC and what I have glimpsed in the months since the election: diverse people determined to build the more inclusive and equitable communities we hoped would be the hallmark of a new administration. Despite the outcome of the election, a majority of Americans today agrees that immigrants strengthen the country and that the country’s increasing ethnic diversity makes it a better place to live.

Carly Goodman

Carly Goodman is the Communications Analyst and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at the American Friends Service Committee. She received her Ph.D. in history from Temple University in 2016. Her dissertation is titled “Global Game of Chance: The U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery, Transnational Migration, and Cultural Diplomacy in Africa, 1990-2016.”

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