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Stop gambling with national security, and end the visa lottery

It's time to move to a merit-based immigration system, for Americans' safety.
Image: JFK Customs
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent stands watch as a crowd of overseas visitors to the U.S. wait in line at JFK airport in New York.Stephen Chernin / Getty Images file

This visa lottery is tainted by fraud and abuse, and has been identified as a national security risk for years. The suspect in October’s terrorist attack in New York City used the federal government-run green card lottery to enter the United States, showing again that there is no doubt that it should be eliminated.

Since the lottery was enacted in 1990, the federal government has naively doled out approximately 50,000 green-cards annually at random to foreign nationals from countries with lower levels of overall immigration to the United States. The lottery by design makes few, if any, allowances for an individual's country of origin, even if the country is identified by the State Department as a sponsor of terrorism. It also has no criteria for previous ties to the United States.

This recent terrorist attack is not the first time the issues with the visa lottery have been called into question; reports of fraud and security risks go back years. In 2003, a State Department Inspector General said “identity fraud is endemic, and fraudulent documents are commonplace.” That year alone, 364,000 lottery applications were duplicates. The Government Accountability Office also sounded the alarm in 2007, noting the “widespread use of fake documents... presented challenges when verifying the identities of applicants and dependents.” Still the lottery remained intact.

Another Inspector General report in 2013 indicated that organized fraud rings masquerading as travel agencies had taken control of applications for the program in Ukraine, entering as much as 80 percent of the population of western Ukraine in the lottery and then extorting those who won both before and after they immigrated. The report recommended “urgent attention and corrective action from Washington.”

It is hardly an understatement to say that fraud has become a feature of this lottery, not an anomaly. That is, unequivocally, a national security risk.

The State Department says that, over the last decade, nearly 29,000 visas were given to citizens from the three countries — Iran, Syria and Sudan — that the agency then listed as state sponsors of terrorism. Iran alone was the third largest recipient of lottery visas in 2016.

These numbers are particularly concerning since the State Department has warned that the lottery “contains significant threats to national security as hostile intelligence officers, criminals, and terrorists attempt to use it to enter the United States as permanent residents.” Beyond the New York terrorist, at least five foreign nationals with suspected ties to terrorism have entered the country via the lottery or the program which preceded its passage.

Fortunately, there has been bipartisan support in Congress to end the green-card lottery. The Jordan Commission, headed by Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and supported by former President Bill Clinton, proposed scrapping the lottery in 1995. Eighteen years later, every single Democrat in the U.S. Senate — including Chuck Schumer, its original architect — voted to end the lottery as part of a broader immigration reform package.

The Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act that Senator Tom Cotton and I have introduced would eliminate the green-card lottery and move us to a merit-based immigration system. This model is heavily based on the immigration systems in Australia and Canada, which have welcomed the best and brightest from around the world for decades.

America is one of the most welcoming countries in the world for immigrants. We simply want an immigration system that keeps Americans safe. The green-card lottery is a failure on all fronts.

It is time to eliminate this outdated program, and implement an immigration system that helps grow our economy while protecting our country.

U.S. Senator David Perdue (R-Ga.) is the only Fortune 500 CEO in Congress.