Impossible Systems: On Carly Goodman’s “Dreamland”

By Tim Hirschel-BurnsJuly 13, 2023

Impossible Systems: On Carly Goodman’s “Dreamland”

Dreamland: America’s Immigration Lottery in an Age of Restriction by Carly Goodman

I LIVED in rural Benin for a few years, working as an English teacher. I was often the first Westerner people had ever met. They did not want to let this opportunity go to waste, and they frequently asked me for help. More than even money, people asked for me to help them go to the United States. I dreaded this question. As easy as it was for me to travel to their country, I knew I had to tell them that it was essentially impossible for them to come to mine.

Running down the list of routes to immigrate to the US, nearly every option was crossed off. No one had close family in the United States. Even those who had been to college lacked the extremely high qualifications needed for an employment-based visa, which typically requires that an employer specifically requests the visa and can demonstrate a lack of qualified Americans. Conditions in rural Benin are frequently life-threatening—cancer is almost always a death sentence, while children regularly die of preventable diseases—but that is not enough to qualify as a refugee.

As disappointing as my answer was, I could still offer one option: apply for the diversity visa lottery. This lottery is the focus of Carly Goodman’s phenomenally well-researched and wide-ranging new book, Dreamland: America’s Immigration Lottery in an Age of Restriction. Goodman hops smoothly from topics as diverse as the history of Irish immigration to the impacts of structural adjustment in West Africa to the visa lottery’s role in the first internet spam incident. Goodman chose her topic well. The visa lottery is a remarkable window into the role of the United States in a highly unequal world—it is no coincidence that a US immigration program unknown to most Americans so frequently became the topic of my conversations in rural Benin.

Goodman’s book comes at a time when the US government is increasingly adopting immigration lotteries. President Biden promised to reverse Trump-era immigration policies, and earlier this year he finally ended the use of Title 42, a public health authority used to rapidly expel asylum seekers. However, the Biden administration is determined to limit the number of asylum seekers reaching the border, despite the United States’ legal obligations. The number of asylum seekers far outnumbers the processing capacity the Biden administration is currently prepared to offer, and to manage this asymmetry, a lottery on a government smartphone app now allocates the opportunity to apply for asylum to asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. Similarly, demand for a new program to sponsor migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela far outnumbers the available spots, and the program has now adopted a partial lottery to allocate spots.

The diversity visa lottery at the center of Goodman’s book provides some precedent on the promise and perils of immigration lotteries. Its structure is exactly what it sounds like: each year, millions of people around the world apply, they are entered into a lottery, and 50,000 end up with green cards. At first glance, it can seem absurd that we decide who has the right to live in the US on the basis of chance. But we already do that: the country one happens to be born in determines their nationality, and nationality is also the central determinant of people’s life fortunes. Compared to the typical human, the typical American makes eight times more money, receives 65 percent more schooling, and lives five years longer.

In this context, it is hardly shocking that so many people around the world are eager to take a second shot at playing the nationality lottery. The program’s immense global popularity lays bare that much of the world perceives the opportunity to live in the United States as an extraordinary windfall. The US is not without its flaws, of course, and Goodman is determined to let the reader know that. But she is also understanding of aspiring immigrants’ desires, noting that for many, a more modest aspiration lies beneath the rhetoric of an American dreamland: “It was not that the roads were literally paved with gold, but that they were paved at all.”

And while American primacy is far from Goodman’s objective, Dreamland also highlights why the visa lottery is such a boon for US foreign policy. Diversity visas represent a small share of immigrants coming to the United States, and the program is not open to everyone: applicants usually need a high school diploma, and people from countries that are major senders of immigrants to the US are ineligible. But the diversity visa is still by far the visa category for which the most people are eligible, and other countries lack similar programs. Even if few people win diversity visas, the fact that billions of people could win them allows the United States to project a sense of openness that no other rich country can match. As a Ghanaian tells Goodman, “In the whole world it is only America that is open.”

The visa lottery allows the US to maintain myths of the US as a land of welcome and opportunity. It is also arguably one of the few pillars of legitimacy standing in defense of the US immigration system. Immigration restrictionists often admonish that undocumented immigrants should have come the “right way.” For many aspiring immigrants, the visa lottery is the only thing ensuring that there is a “right way” at all, making it all the more striking that those same restrictionists are often the ones leading the charge to eliminate the diversity visa program and the already minuscule chance of success it provides.

Although the visa lottery generates huge benefits for both aspiring immigrants and US foreign policy, these benefits are almost entirely accidental. The program’s bizarre origins stem from the backlash to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which eliminated nationality quotas and led to a significant increase in non-European immigration to the US. When Ireland’s economy faltered in the 1980s, tens of thousands of people came to the United States. But most Irish immigration to the US was long enough ago that these new Irish immigrants lacked the close family ties needed to qualify for a visa, and a significant population of undocumented Irish appeared.

Politicians of Irish ancestry sought to find a solution. As Goodman notes, these efforts drew on appeals to the US as a land of openness, a sentiment that the 1965 Act had shown little respect for Irish Americans’ contributions to the country, and a consistent undertone that it was wrong for white immigrants to be undocumented. Advocates of Irish immigration knew that they would not be able to pass a bill permanently favoring Irish immigrants, but they did help shepherd through a 1990 compromise in which Irish immigrants got specific preferences for a transitional period. Thereafter, the visa lottery would apply a formula that prioritized countries that had sent few immigrants to the United States in recent years—which its proponents knew would include Ireland due to several decades of declining European immigration. The politicians opportunistically adopted the label of “diversity visas” for this scheme that they designed to protect white immigration.

But ultimately, and largely accidentally, the visas did end up diversifying US immigration. Relatively few Irish have ended up coming to the US on diversity visas, while nearly half of all visa lottery winners have come from Africa. Because there is limited migration from Africa to the United States through family and employment-based visas, the visa lottery formula produces a significant allocation of diversity visas for African countries.

Like its inadvertent expansion of African immigration, the program’s endurance has been similarly fortuitous. It has survived increased restrictionism and a post-9/11 atmosphere that often framed immigrants as a security threat. As it became clear the visa lottery did more to promote African than white immigration, many of its original proponents lost interest, while the largest constituency backing the program can—as non-US citizens—do little to protect it. The visa lottery also gained an unfortunate spotlight in 2017 when, in an already bleak moment of Trump-fueled nativism, an Uzbek former diversity visa recipient drove a truck into a Manhattan bike path and killed eight people. Since its creation, several prominent immigration bills would have eliminated the visa lottery. But those bills failed to pass, less because of mobilization in defense of diversity visas than because enough Republicans were so opposed to offering legal status to undocumented immigrants that they torpedoed deals that would have ended the visa lottery.

Goodman’s book charts this history in depth, a feat of remarkable research that is sometimes conveyed in more exhaustive detail than a nonhistorian would seek. Goodman’s critiques are plentiful. She even criticizes the visa lottery as playing into individualistic philosophies of migrant-led development and a framing of African immigrants as model minorities. While Goodman’s critiques are not without merit, their frequency can leave the reader unsure of what she is actually for.

But Goodman returns to a powerful affirmative argument for the visa lottery at the end of the book. She notes that defenders of the program have come to argue that it “should be retained because it makes the opportunity to migrate available as a form of repair, an acknowledgment of the violence of borders and inequality of our world.” In a world unfair enough to need this repair, it is perhaps unsurprising that the visa lottery’s existence derives from less noble goals. The accidentally egalitarian nature of the visa lottery’s effects does not make them any less real. It has transformed the lives of over a million people who lived in the circumstances most humans face: born in the Global South, without family abroad or access to the advanced education that could win them a visa to a rich country. The visa lottery has allowed millions more to dream. And when those of us from the parts of the world where prosperity is concentrated meet those who wish to join us, the visa lottery is often the one thing that allows us to tell them our door is cracked open. We could push the door further open, but for now, a crack remains much better than nothing.


Tim Hirschel-Burns is a recent graduate of Yale Law School.

LARB Contributor

Tim Hirschel-Burns is a lawyer, policy advocate, and writer. His writing focuses on global poverty and inequality and has appeared in outlets including Foreign Policy, African Arguments, and Just Security.


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