Vanderbilt Law Review

Article Title

The Strategic Use of Mexico to Restrict South American Access to the Diversity Visa Lottery


In 1990, Congress enacted the Family Unity and Employment Opportunity Act (the "1990 Act"), which created a visa lottery to enhance the diversity of the immigrant stream and to ensure that areas of the world sending relatively few immigrants to the United States could still have access to the immigrant stream. In order to achieve these goals, Congress created a complex formula by which 55,000 "diversity" visas would be distributed annually among six geographically defined regions based on the total number of immigrant admissions from each region. Under this formula, regions with relatively low admission rates are granted more visas than regions with relatively high admission rates.

As the bulk of immigrants to the United States come from Asia and North America (primarily Mexico), it is not surprising that fewer diversity visas are granted to North American and Asian immigrants than to immigrants from Europe and Africa. What is startling is how few diversity visas are allotted to immigrants from South America, even though every year there are fewer non-diversity immigrants from South America than from Europe. For example, in 2004, South America accounted for approximately 8% of all non-diversity immigrant admissions, significantly less than the 12% that came from Europe. In that same year, almost 38% of all diversity visa immigrants came from Europe, but only 3% of all diversity immigrants came from continental South America.

This Note will shed light on the legislative slight of hand responsible for this discrepancy, which has been largely overlooked in the debate surrounding the diversity visa lottery: the strategic definition of the South America region. By defining the South America region to include, for diversity lottery purposes, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and the South American continent, the drafters of the diversity lottery were able to limit a cultural group's access to the lottery while simultaneously ensuring that a maximum number of lottery visas would be available for European and African immigrants.

To put the enactment of the diversity visa lottery in context, Part II will offer a brief overview of the history of U.S. immigration law and policy through the 1990 Act, and Part III will discuss the legislative history of the diversity visa lottery. Part IV will provide a detailed exploration of the effects of the distinctive region definitions in the "so-called" diversity visa lottery and the ostensible reasons for these definitions. Finally, Part V will discuss a number of potential solutions to this disparate treatment (including legislation introduced this year that would eradicate the lottery, albeit for very different reasons), advocating ultimately in favor of a random lottery that does not discriminate with respect to nationality or ethnicity.