Inside Trump and Schumer's war of words over diversity visa lottery program

PHOTO: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at a news conference to unveil congressional Democrats "A Better Deal" economic agenda on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 1, 2017.PlayAaron P. Bernstein/Reuters
WATCH Trump calls for termination of diversity visa lottery program

The morning after the horrific truck attack in New York City, President Donald Trump was up early tweeting that he blames a program supported by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer for allowing the assailant, originally from Uzbekistan, to immigrate to the United States.

Schumer proposed the underlying language for the program which eventually became law. He also advocated for reforms similar to the ones Trump advocates, going as far to propose its elimination during comprehensive immigration reform talks four years ago.

Responding to Trump Wednesday, Schumer said the president should “stop tweeting and start leading.”

The diversity lottery was established as a small part of the Immigration Act of 1990, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. The State Department run program sets aside 55,000 visas per year for immigrants from “low-admission states” per immigration data from the previous five years, and was based on language Schumer proposed while he was a House member.

Applicants must submit a variety of documents for a background check, including court and police records and military records, submit to an interview at their nearest embassy and undergo a medical examination.

Alleged attacker Sayfullo Saipov obtained a green card, reportedly through this lottery, in 2010. That year, 3,356 people from Uzbekistan received diversity lottery visas.

The Government Accountability Office warned in 2007 that the lottery program was “vulnerable to fraud committed by and against DV [Diversity Visa] applicants” but said the State Department needed to do a better job compiling data on detected and suspected fraud.

It also noted that it found “no documented evidence” that any lottery recipients “posed a terrorist or other threat.”

Schumer may have authored the underlying language that led to the diversity visa, but in recent years he had come to doubt the program’s effectiveness and in fact sought to get rid of it.

As a member of the “Gang of 8” senators who worked on a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013, Schumer told the Senate Judiciary Committee during a May markup that year that the diversity visa program had “outlived its usefulness” but that there were still some immigrants, primarily those from African and Caribbean nations, who would benefit from consideration above and beyond the standard green card system.

Therefore, he said he wanted to change the program from a lottery system to an economic visa, employing virtually identical language to that Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.

“We’re abolishing,” the lottery system, Schumer said, speaking of the immigration bill’s text. “We’re doing it in a more job oriented way, everyone has to have an employer who wants to hire them, a more merit-based way.”

Sen. Jeff Flake, a Trump critic who was also on the Gang of 8, tweeted to remind the president of Schumer’s intentions.

The Gang of 8’s proposal, which would have established a long pathway to citizenship, passed the Senate with bipartisan support but the House never considered it.

A pair of Senate Republicans and Trump allies, Tom Cotton and David Perdue had recently revived discussion over the lottery program by calling for its end as part of their RAISE Act, which also would lower immigration levels overall, but their bill never got broad support in Congress, even after Trump held a major event at the White House calling for its passage.

“We will let you know if the Leader issues a statement on the bill and/or makes an announcement on potential floor action,” a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said at the time.

Asked Wednesday whether he believes the lottery system should be abolished specifically in light of this incident, Schumer said it was too soon to tell, noting that the existing lottery system still has a vigorous background check process.

“Before we can comment we have to see what happened with this individual person,” he said.