I Came Here on a Diversity Lottery Visa. And I’m Definitely Not a Terrorist.
After the terrorist attack in lower Manhattan on Halloween, political attention quickly focused on how the suspect, an Uzbek immigrant, had arrived in America in the first place: In 2010, he won the Diversity Visa Lottery, a program that grants 50,000 immigrants a green card and new life in the United States each year. Shortly thereafter, President Donald Trump condemned the visa lottery, demanding it be replaced with a merit-based system to deter future acts of terrorism.
If not for the Diversity Visa Lottery, though, I wouldn’t be in the U.S. either. Born in Romania two years before the revolution that overthrew Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, I first arrived in America alone on July 4, 2001. In the small Transylvanian town where I grew up, sports were considered a conduit to a successful career, and I was fortunate to receive a tennis scholarship to a North Carolina high school and then to Davidson College. After I received my diploma, however, I knew I would have to return to Romania, if not for a key stroke of luck that changed my life forever: While I was still in school, my mother applied for, and won, the green card lottery.
While Trump’s suggestion of a “merit-based” process may sound fairer than a luck-of-the-draw random lottery, it ignores the fact that the Diversity Visa Lottery already stipulates that applicants have high-caliber credentials in order to be eligible. When my mother, an engineer, applied for the Diversity Visa Lottery in Romania, the application had dozens of in-depth questions—about her university, degree, work experience, and family. The Department of Labor even has education and occupational requirements with specific “job zones” in which prospective immigrants must have experience in order to qualify. Yes, my mother was lucky—but her robust resume helped a lot, too.
Trump also called for an end to “chain migration,” referring to the privilege of visa lottery winners to sponsor family members to join them in the United States. But such a change would also be problematic, for reasons beyond just splitting up families. When my mother won the visa lottery, she elected to extend it to me, her then 16-year-old son, even though I personally had not won the lottery. Without the equivalent of a high school degree, I also did not meet the educational qualifications. Yet in 2009, I proudly became an American citizen, and a few years later, I co-founded iMedicare, a health care tech startup providing software to over 5,000 pharmacies to drive prescription drug savings to their patients. Today, we’re profitable, and employ several dozen U.S. employees—something that would never have been possible if my mom hadn’t been able to share her winning lottery ticket with me.
For what it’s worth, in my family’s case, there was no “chain” of immigration. While I was able to legally stay in the U.S., my parents chose to remain in Romania; my older sisters live in Germany. I am the only one in my family to live in America, and as grateful as I am to be here, Trump is spreading harmful misconceptions that immigrants open the floodgates. In fact, too often the opposite is true, as many foreign-born U.S. citizens live oceans away from their loved ones, unable to secure visas for their closest relatives.
What was especially clear about the New York attack, which killed eight people—including five Argentines, a Belgian, and two Americans—is that the suffering this terrorist has caused hurts us all, regardless of nationality, and we cannot allow him to cause additional damage to our society. Ending the Diversity Visa Lottery without providing an alternative would prevent 50,000 immigrants from coming to the United States each year to not only better their lives, but also to make the United States a stronger economy by creating jobs and spurring innovation.
Flaviu Simihaian is the CEO and co-founder of iMedicare.