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Africans could be the big losers as the United States reforms its immigration laws and eliminates the green card lottery, of which Africans are the main beneficiaries.
Half of the 50,000 residence permits handed out at random each year are earmarked for Africans. It is a hugely popular program that has allowed hundreds of thousands of Africans to settle in America since the mid 1990s.
But the ambitious reform project under debate now in Washington, which would provide papers for million undocumented immigrants, contains a clause that would do away with the lottery.
In its place would be a more selective immigration system based on skills, career and family ties.
For years the lottery has been in the crosshairs of Republicans, who control the House of Representatives and say it adds no value to the American economy.
“It’s clear that there are better ways to allocate visas than to randomly give them out through a lottery system,” said Bob Goodlatte, the Republican who leads the House Judiciary Committee. “Our immigration laws shouldn’t be based on the luck of the draw; rather, they should be designed strategically to benefit our country.”
The ‘diversity visa,’ as it is known formally, is set aside for people from countries that do not experience a lot of emigration. So Mexicans, Chinese and Filipinos, for instance, are not eligible. Africans quickly became the main ones to cash in.
All applicants need is a high school diploma or two years of work experience.
Between 2010 and 2012, one in five Africans who came to the United States to stay did so through the lottery. That made it the third most common method, at 21 percent of the total, after family reunification (43%) and refugee status or asylum seekers (23%).
By comparison, in the same period only 10 percent of Europeans who became permanent residents and 3% of Asians did so through the lottery.
“It has proven to be a way of helping those who come from the continent of Africa, those who come from a number of other areas where it is very difficult to get a visa,” said Sheila Jackson Lee, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members are all Democrats.
But in an effort to preserve the comprehensive reform being negotiated for months by the two parties, the Democrats and President Barack Obama agreed to ditch the lottery.
Representative Charles Schumer, who authored the program in 1990, said it was impossible to keep it.
Schumer said the system that will replace it in 2017 is merit-based and will also give Africans a chance. On average they are more educated than people from other continents. And English-speaking Africans would get a boost because of that language skill.
But Michael Fix of the Migration Policy Institute said, “It really probably won’t admit enough people to offset the effects of the loss of the diversity visa for some years after that. It’s a long time away. It won’t be immediately offset by any means.”
The diversity visas would vanish starting next year under the reform being negotiated.
Only four percent of African immigrants — compared to 21 percent of Asians and 22 percent of Europeans — received a green card for employment reasons in 2012.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People says the number of African immigrants will go down even with the merit-based system.
“In essence, we’re concerned,” said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP Washington bureau director.
Dame Babou, who hosts a radio show that caters to Senegalese people in New York, said the scrapping of the lottery is disheartening for Africans.
“Every year many people thought this was going to be their year,” Babou said. “Again, what is being eliminated is hope.”