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New proposal blocks African and Caribbean immigrants

Kevin Bogardus and Russell Berman | 5/15/2013, 11:46 a.m.

Black lawmakers and civil rights groups are concerned by a proposal in the Senate’s immigration reform bill that would do away with “diversity” visas that are often a pathway for African and Caribbean immigrants to enter the United States.

Advocates said they haven’t seen evidence yet that a new merit-based program is an acceptable replacement for the diversity visas.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington bureau, said he is telling lawmakers not to cut the diversity program when comprehensive immigration reform moves forward.

“At this point, we are urging lawmakers not to eliminate the diversity visa program,” Shelton told reporters. “This is one of the places in the bill that needs to be addressed. We will work with our friends in the Senate, and we have started working with our friends in the House as well.”

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., co-chairman of the immigration task force for the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), called the Senate bill “a significant step in the right direction” but said his caucus is worried about the plan to eliminate diversity visas.

“With respect to the abolishment of the diversity visa lottery program, the CBC is extremely concerned that it might limit the future flow of immigration for people from certain parts of the world,” Jeffries said. “That’s troublesome, and we’re evaluating the merit-based visa proposal to determine if it’s fair and balanced.”

The diversity program makes 55,000 visas available each year to countries with low immigration rates to the United States. Those awarded the visas are chosen by a lottery, with about half typically going to African immigrants.

Republican lawmakers have targeted the program in the past for elimination, arguing the program’s lottery system can lead to fraud and undermine national security.

The Senate bill proposes ending the diversity visas in 2015 and creating a new, merit-based visa program. It would make 120,000 visas available per year, rising to a maximum of 250,000, depending on the need for them and the unemployment rate. Immigrants would earn points toward visas based on their education, employment, family ties and other criteria.

“The jury is still out on whether the merit-based visas will be sufficient to address the concerns we have identified with diversity visas,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We are concerned, but we are still looking and we are still making a decision.”

Some groups are furious with lawmakers for putting the diversity program on the chopping block.

“This is not a zero-sum game where we take from one to give to another. That is not how comprehensive immigration reform should work,” said Bertha Lewis, president of The Black Institute. “We are really, really angry about this diversity visa business.”

Jeffries said it was “too early to say” whether he would support the Senate bill without changes. The CBC is in talks with lawmakers negotiating a House immigration overhaul, he said.

“The situation is still very much in flux, and we won’t know until the end of the month what that bill might ultimately look like,” Jeffries said.