The Uzbekistan native arrested for the deadly truck rampage through a New York City bike path entered the United States under a visa program to encourage immigration from underrepresented nations, President Trump said Wednesday.
Trump called on Congress to immediately end the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which was used by Sayfullo Saipov, 29, to enter the U.S. in 2010. The State Department issues up to 50,000 visas a year under the program using a lottery system.
"We need to get rid of the lottery program as soon as possible," Trump said before a Cabinet meeting at the White House.
The purpose of the visa program, created by the 1990 Immigration and Nationality Act, is to diversify the incoming pool of immigrants and provide people with no family or economic ties to the U.S. a small chance to enter. Those who receive the visa are then eligible for a green card and, eventually, U.S. citizenship.
The program is eligible only to people who live in countries where few residents regularly immigrate to the U.S., mostly from Africa, Asia and eastern European countries that were part of the Soviet bloc, according to data from the State Department. In 2016, people from African nations accounted for 44% of the 46,718 visas granted, those from eastern Europe received 33%, and those from Asia got 19%.
Saipov came to America from Uzbekistan in 2010. Since then, more than 21,000 residents of that nation have been granted diversity visas, according to the State Department.
The program has long been a target of immigration hard-liners wanting either to reduce the number of immigrants entering the U.S. or switch to a more "merit-based" immigration system. To qualify for a diversity visa, applicants need only a high school degree and two years of work experience.
In 2013, when the Senate passed an immigration overhaul, Democrats defended the program as a much-needed lifeline to people hoping for a shot at the American dream. Republicans attacked the program as an outdated system that does not serve the national interest.
The program was eliminated as part of a compromise measure that passed the Senate, but the legislation died when the House of Representatives failed to act.
Now, those same Republicans are renewing their call to end the program.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the co-authors of the 2013 bill along with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., countered Trump's criticism Wednesday of the program and Schumer by pointing out their legislation would have ended the diversity program. "I know, I was there," Flake wrote in a tweet.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another member of the Gang of 8 that sponsored the 2013 immigration overhaul, said the diversity visa will now become part of ongoing negotiations to protect DREAMers — undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
"It makes no sense to hand out visas and green cards this way," Graham said Wednesday on Fox News. "We want merit-based immigration. When it comes times to deal with ... Dream Act kids, that part of the deal should be to do away with the lottery system."
Last month, ending the program was included on a long list of demands that the White House said were needed before Congress could pass a law protecting DREAMers.
Those who apply for a diversity visa must submit biographic information, two passport-style photos, copy of a birth certificate, medical examination, vaccination record and an arrival/departure record. Applicants go through a federal background check and an in-person interview with a U.S. consular official in their home country.