Writing U.S. Immigration History on the Other Side of the World

April 2, 2016
By: Carly Goodman

I was walking down the avenue in Biyem-Assi, a neighborhood in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, trying to avoid stepping into the sewer that edged the road or into the path of one of the many scrambling shared taxis that comprise public transit here. As a historian of American foreign relations and immigration policy, Cameroon, in sub-saharan Africa, is perhaps a strange destination for my dissertation research. Positioned just at the curve where West meets Central Africa, Cameroon borders Nigeria, stretches north towards Chad, east toward the Central African Republic, and south to Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo. Cameroon’s government promotes the country as “Africa in miniature” due to its geographic and demographic diversity, and the country is officially bilingual with French and English both serving as official languages. In 1990, just 3000 Cameroonian immigrants resided in the United States. Today the number has increased eleven-fold, to over 33,000.

This increase is due, in large part, to the introduction of a U.S. immigration policy called the U.S. Diversity Visa lottery, which began in 1994, and is the subject of my dissertation. Each year, the United States holds a month-long registration period during which it invites people from around the world to apply for a chance at a green card. Millions play, approximately 100,000 are selected, and 50,000 receive a diversity visa each year. In 2013, Cameroon was one of Africa’s top DV-winning countries: 3858 people were selected, and 1619 were issued immigrant visas.

I came to Cameroon to interview people, in English and French, about the visa lottery, its operation and meaning here, and the ideas about migration to the United States that it inspires. I have been ducking into cyber cafes to talk to the (mostly) men who assist customers in entering the American lottery.

One shop on the second floor of a building was draped with a banner. Beneath an image of the American flag, the shop advertised its DV lottery services: “Jouez et gagnez ici,” play and win here, “avec les professionnels,” with the professionals. I climbed up the metal spiral staircase to the shop, where a man at the front had a laptop open to the U.S. Electronic DV Lottery website (link: https://www.dvlottery.state.gov/). He was helping another man submit his application – filling out the form, formatting the photo, hitting send, and printing the confirmation notice. In the back room, I spoke with the proprietor, Bengha, who was from an English-speaking region of the country.

“So many people are interested in leaving the country. They believe that out there is better than here, so that is why they are interested in the lottery,” he told me. “They believe this is the only way for them to go.” He himself had been applying, unsuccessfully, for the last eight years. Yet many people came to him for assistance, paying him 1000 cfa (about $2) to play. Of the 200-300 who came each year, he told me that last year he had 12 clients win. “They tell me I am a magician!” he said.

I have been writing about the history of the visa lottery, its legislation in the U.S. and its
operation in Africa, for several years. But the experience of seeing U.S. immigration operating here has greatly enriched my understanding of the story. I will include in my project the voices of people like Bengha, who play a key role in promoting and facilitating the U.S. policy to serve their own economic and cultural needs. Moreover, these stories complement and complicate the interviews and conversations I have had with Cameroonian immigrants in the United States. One immigrant advocacy group, the Cameroon American Council (@CamAmerCouncil) has been one of the few outspoken voices arguing that the lottery plays a critical role facilitating African immigration, and has led the effort to preserve the policy in immigration reform. Understanding the impact of the lottery, however, requires examining its operation on the ground in Africa.

This is transnational research at its most exciting and challenging. I returned home one night after working all day to find no running water at the guesthouse. Explaining what I am doing here often produces quizzical looks. A trip across town to the university library was abruptly cut short when the roads were closed down indefinitely to accommodate the presidential motorcade. But the rewards of doing immigration research outside the United States are great, and I look forward to letting this experience, and the stories I am collecting, inform my writing as I finish up this spring.

Carly Goodman

Carly Goodman is a doctoral candidate in the history department at Temple University, writing a dissertation titled “Global Game of Chance: The U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery, Transnational Migration, and Cultural Diplomacy in Africa, 1990-2016.

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