DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's explore an item on the White House's wish list for immigration policy. Here's President Trump in November.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am today starting the process of terminating the diversity lottery program.
GREENE: The president was speaking after an attack in New York City when a truck plowed through a bike lane and killed eight people. The suspect was an Uzbek immigrant, one of the 50,000 people a year who receive green cards through what is known as the visa lottery. This program started with the sweeping 1965 Immigration Reform Act. That law prioritized immigrants with close family ties and work skills. It put caps on how many people each country could send, and at the time those standards hurt one group in particular, the Irish.
ANNA LAW: They had relatives in the United States, but the relationships were too far away. So a cousin or an aunt can't really petition you, and they didn't have the job skills, either. So there was a huge accumulation of illegal Irish. They had come in on a temporary tourist visa and overstayed.
GREENE: That's the voice of Anna Law, a political scientist at Brooklyn College. She told our co-host Rachel Martin that a few members of Congress devised the diversity lottery in the late 1980s in large part to bring more Irish people to the United States.
LAW: Yeah, it was called the Irish amnesty, and the Italians, also. It was to benefit those two groups. Italians had a slightly different problem. They had the family ties, but it was because we can only let in 20,000 Italians, it was taking years and years for people who were being petitioned by their U.S. brothers and sisters to get into the country. So there was this huge backlog.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: So what ended up happening with this program? I mean, how has it evolved over time?
LAW: The Irish and Italians eventually lose interest in using this lottery. The economic situation in their countries got better. And also, as EU nations, they had options to travel to other European Union nations to work.
MARTIN: They weren't so desperate to get to America anymore.
LAW: Right. But in recent years the big beneficiaries have been many African nations and Eastern Europe.
MARTIN: What is the justification for this program today?
LAW: It depends on who you ask. A lot of people don't believe it has a justification and that it's a very crazy way to run immigration policy. It is not what Trump suggests, that they're picking numbers out of a hat, but it is a random approach to selecting immigrants.
MARTIN: I mean, we should note that even Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate minority leader, has in the past voted to scrap the diversity visa lottery system.
LAW: Right. That was in 2013. He and a bipartisan Senate passed an immigration reform bill. He voted against the lottery. But that bill died in the House.
MARTIN: So do you think that this is where it's headed now? Do you think that in this debate, since President Trump wants this program cut, that there is an appetite at least among some Democrats to cut the program, that that could be a sacrifice that the Democrats would make to get a deal?
LAW: This program has been on the chopping block many different times. The administration is not just interested in cutting undocumented immigration. They also want serious cuts to legal immigration, permanent immigration. So I think I would let this one go. We're talking 50,000 visas. It's not a large number.
MARTIN: All right. Anna Law, thanks so much for helping us understand this.
LAW: Thanks for having me on the show.
GREENE: Anna Law teaches political science at Brooklyn College. She was speaking to Rachel Martin, our co-host on MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.