Black lawmakers and civil rights groups are concerned by a proposal in the Senate’s immigration reform bill that would do away with “diversity” visas that are often a pathway for African and Caribbean immigrants to enter the United States.
Advocates said they haven’t seen evidence yet that a new merit-based program is an acceptable replacement for the diversity visas, which total 55,000 each year and are granted via a lottery.
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington bureau, said he is telling lawmakers not to eliminate the diversity program when comprehensive immigration reform moves forward.
“At this point, we are urging lawmakers not to eliminate the diversity visa program,” Shelton told reporters. “This is one of the places in the bill that needs to be addressed. We will work with our friends in the Senate, and we have started working with our friends in the House as well.”
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), co-chairman of the immigration task force for the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), called the Senate bill “a significant step in the right direction” but said his caucus is worried about the plan to eliminate diversity visas.
“With respect to the abolishment of the diversity visa lottery program, the CBC is extremely concerned that it might limit the future flow of immigration for people from certain parts of the world,” Jeffries said. “That’s troublesome, and we’re evaluating the merit-based visa proposal to determine if it’s fair and balanced.”
The diversity program makes 55,000 visas available each year to countries with low immigration rates to the United States. Those awarded the visas are chosen by a lottery, with about half typically going to African immigrants.
Republican lawmakers have targeted the program in the past for elimination, arguing the program’s lottery system can lead to fraud and undermine national security.
The Senate bill proposes ending the diversity visas in 2015 and creating a new, merit-based visa program. It would make 120,000 visas available per year, rising to a maximum of 250,000, depending on the need for them and the unemployment rate. Immigrants would earn points toward visas based on their education, employment, family ties and other criteria.
“The jury is still out on whether the merit-based visas will be sufficient to address the concerns we have identified with diversity visas,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We are concerned but we are still looking, and we are still making a decision.”
Some groups are furious with lawmakers for putting the diversity program on the chopping block.
“This is not a zero-sum game where we take from one to give to another. That is not how comprehensive immigration reform should work,” said Bertha Lewis, president of The Black Institute. “We are really, really angry about this diversity visa business.”
Jeffries said it was “too early to say” whether he would support the Senate bill without changes. The CBC is in talks with lawmakers negotiating a House immigration overhaul, he said.
“The situation is still very much in flux, and we won’t know until the end of the month what that bill might ultimately look like,” Jeffries said.
Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), another co-chairman of the CBC’s immigration task force, said the group met on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the diversity visa issue.
“We continue to be concerned about the discontinuation of the diversity waiver, and the fact that … African and Caribbean immigrants who are participating in the diversity visa [program] per year could lose that pathway,” Horsford said.
Horsford said CBC leaders have been in talks with immigration reform negotiators in both the House and the Senate. He suggested the merit-based replacement program was included in the Senate bill at the urging of the CBC.
“In large part, this alternative has been proposed because of our concerns with the diversity visa [discontinuation]. Meaning, we brought this issue up when we heard that it was being talked about [being] eliminated,” Horsford said. “And we said, ‘Look, without some meaningful alternative that ensures that all communities, including Caribbean and African immigrants, are protected, then, you know, we [the CBC] would have major concern.’”
Horsford said Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), another leader of the CBC’s immigration task force, has been in talks with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” about diversity visas.
“And now that we have the language, and now that we can see the alternative specifically, we can, you know, begin to work on how it affects our communities,” Horsford said.
Horsford said he expected the House immigration reform bill would have similar language related to diversity visas and the merit-based replacement program.
Shelton of the NAACP said he was hoping for “a strengthening” of the diversity visa program in the immigration reform bill by increasing its numbers of visas and expediting their processing time.
“It has not been demonstrated yet that the merit-based visas that are being lifted up will solve the problems that diversity visas were intended to solve,” Shelton said. “There may be a need for an amendment to fix this problem in the future to help African and Caribbean immigrants.”