On October 31, 2017 Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbekistan-born permanent resident of the United States—who gained residency through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program—killed eight people in a terrorist attack in New York City’s Lower West Side. Following the attack, President Donald Trump called for the elimination of this visa lottery program that was established by an act of Congress and signed into law by former President George H. W. Bush in 1990.
On November 13, the White House named five other terrorists who gained residency in the United States through the visa lottery or because their parents or spouses gained residency via the lottery in an effort to justify eliminating the program.
Yet a review of these five cases demonstrates that they do not illustrate a border-security problem, where terrorists use the lottery to infiltrate the United States, but instead reflect the diverse challenge of homegrown radicalization in the United States.
Of the five, four came to the United States during the 1980s and 1990s when there was far less attention to the threat posed by jihadist terrorism. One of those was Hesham Hedayet, who killed two people in a 2002 shooting at the El Al counter at LAX Airport in Los Angeles, Calif. Hedayet, however, entered the United States in 1992, a decade before he conducted the attack. He entered on a temporary B-2 visa and claimed asylum. The primary failure – if there was one – of the immigration system in Hedayet’s case revolved around the slow processing and resolution of Hedayet’s asylum claim, and the processing system has seen several reforms since Hedayet came to the United States. (Hedayet’s asylum application was rejected in 1993.)
It was five years later in 1997 that Hedayet gained permanent residency as a result of his wife’s successful application to the visa lottery, which she submitted in 1996.
Given the decade that passed between Hedayet’s entry and his attack and the five years that passed between his gaining permanent residency and his attack, viewing his attack as a case of terrorist infiltration is a mistake. Moreover, the more aggressive enforcement of immigration law after the 9/11 attacks makes the Hedayet case of limited value to assessing the threat today.
Similarly, Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, a Hamas leader, came to the United States during the 1980s and received a green card in 1990, through the lottery’s predecessor program according to the Trump administration. He was arrested in 1995 while trying to enter the United States, six years before the 9/11 attacks, precisely because he had tripped the then-far more limited terrorism watchlist. He was deported in 1997.
In addition, of the five cases, two arrived as youths and radicalized in the United States. One, Imran Mandhai, immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1998 prior to the post-9/11 focus on jihadist terrorism. He was a teenager when he entered. At the time of his arrest, officials stated that he had become disillusioned with the United States shortly after his arrival, suggesting his radicalization occurred inside the United States.
The other, Syed Haris Ahmed, came to the United States in 1996 with his family. As Ahmed was born in 1984, he would have been around 12 years old when he entered. The Department of Justice, in its press release regarding Ahmed’s being found guilty, notes that while he was born in Pakistan, he was “raised in Marietta and Dawsonville, [Georgia].” In addition, Ahmed’s co-conspirator, Ehsanul Sadequee, was a United States citizen born in Fairfax, Virginia, demonstrating that Ahmed’s path from abroad into the United States was not essential to the plot.
The other name cited by the Trump administration that might provide support for its effort to portray the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program as a current border-security issue is Abdurasul Juraboev, who came to the United States from Uzbekistan via the visa lottery in 2011.
Little is known about Juraboev’s radicalization and the extent to which it may have had roots in Uzbekistan. However, the administration has failed to provide evidence demonstrating that Juraboev radicalized in Uzbekistan and not the United States. For his part, Saipov, whose attack triggered the debate over the lottery, entered the country seven years before his attack. According to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Saipov “radicalized domestically.”
In contrast to the five cases (plus Saipov) that the administration found to defend its case, there are 207 cases of American citizens born in the United States who have been accused of jihadist terrorism crimes, 49% of the 421 cases since the 9/11 attacks, according to New America’s research.
There may be good reason to end or adjust the lottery – in 2007 the Government Accountability Office examined the program and warned of the risk of fraud, but also noted: “We found no documented evidence that DV immigrants […] posed a terrorist or other threat.” The central threat to the United States from terrorism is homegrown, inspired by jihadist ideology, and at times enabled by foreign terrorists via interaction online. It is not a threat driven by foreign jihadist infiltration. The few names provided by the Trump administration do not change that fact – and tightening immigration policy will not make a substantial difference to the current terrorist threat in the United States.