Just ten years ago, I was in the horn of Africa plotting to escape from a giant hand holding me down by my shoulders—the dictatorial government of Ethiopia. Luckily for me, I received a nice letter a year prior from Kentucky Consular Center, congratulating me for being selected to start a process of immigrating to the United States. I won the Green Card Lottery also known as diversity visa lottery. Even though I share the concerns of the law makers on Capitol Hill about the visa being mired with frauds, I do not believe getting rid of it will solve the problems. Before they shun the visa, they should think about how to improve it.
I was a medical student when I applied for the visa. Just like many others who tried to run away from poverty and merciless dictators, I considered, and attempted to leave Ethiopia through Kenya, but hit a roadblock. I did not have the money for the transportation to Moyale (a border town between Ethiopia and Kenya). The refugee camps are as inconvenient as Jimma (a home to Jimma University). Kakuma camp which has been run by UNHCR is overcrowded, I heard. At the time, I did not think there was a worse place than Ethiopia. High school and college students were killed on the streets of Dembi Dollo, Ambo and Nekemte towns. These students became targets of live bullets (paid for by U.S taxpayers) just because they dared to speak up against the government of Meles Zenawi.
There was a reason why I wanted to escape. Ethiopian government has targeted Oromo students in the name of Oromo Liberation Front—secessionist organization effectively labeled “terrorist” by Zenawi’s government. As an Oromo student myself, I was subjected to repeated intimidations from the regime’s forces in plain clothes. I also witnessed students die of gunshot wounds. These were some of the reasons why I decided to head to Kakuma. But transportation money was a rate-limiting factor.
Instead of giving up on my dream to get away, I decided to try other alternatives. One of them was testing my luck. Unlike the blank stare I often get from Americans whenever I mentioned diversity visa lottery, Africans from every walks of life bombard the Williamsburg center with applications. It was a surprise to me when I received a letter which said I have been selected. It was a dream come true.
I genuinely believe the Green Card lottery is full of frauds, as I share concerns of some in Congress. But giving the axe to this visa as in the “Gang of Eight” bill, does not guarantee a fraud-free immigration system. In nations like Ethiopia, connections to the ruling class do matter. The people who are in tune with the ethnocentric government will be at the front end of the line to apply for the so called “merit-based” visas; they always have. There won’t be an opportunity for someone like me who is not connected. The argument that says green card lottery only brought low skilled immigrants to the United States is flawed. Even though I would not be able to provide statistical data, I know many diversity visa lottery winners who are Cardiologists, Gastroenterologists and Engineers in the U.S. If low-skilled immigrants are of a concern, there is an easier remedy for it: changing the requirement for the application from high school diploma to college diploma.
The only option left for the non-connected will be fleeing to refugee camps in Kenya. United States Congress has a leverage even to minimize the overcrowding of those camps; withholding military aid from brutal governments like that of Ethiopia. Meles Zenawi’s soldiers patrolled the streets of Addis Ababa in armored U.S-made Humvees while live bullets were raining on unarmed peaceful protesters in May of 2005. If it is too hard to stand against such governments because of “stability,” providing nonlethal weapons to disperse peaceful protesters would have been appropriate.
The main fraud that ails the green card lottery might be the good old “marriage for green card.” Immigration officers will do their best to weed it out but it gets tricky in reality. It does not need rocket science to know how hard it could be for an immigration officer to say a marriage is sham. People will be prepared and well-rehearsed for cross-examinations. But, providing financial assistance for people who can’t afford a ticket to New York. Luckily for taxpayers, there are not many people who need this assistance. And, the so called “merit-based” visas are not immune to sham marriage either.
Merit-based visas will work perfectly for Europe, and maybe Asia. For the Africans, the world is different; rights and access are genetically transmitted. A minister in Addis Ababa or Abuja will forge college transcripts, and send his nephew to Columbia University. Even worse, he will do anything in his power to bar that bright college student from applying, perhaps because he or she happened to be from different ethnic group.
The decision by the gang of eight to ditch the diversity visa lottery does not do anything to improve immigration and potential immigrants from Africa would be left with the option of heading to overcrowded refugee camps, in the hope of finding a shelter in the U.S or Europe.