President Trump and top congressional Republicans promised Wednesday to scrap the country’s green-card lottery after it became clear that the suspect in this week’s terrorist truck attack in New York City used the Diversity Visa Lottery to gain a foothold in the U.S. in 2010.
Sayfullo Saipov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, plowed a rented truck down a bike path Tuesday afternoon, wounding a dozen people and killing eight, police said. Six of those killed also were foreigners.
As a lawful permanent resident, he was on the intermediate step along the pathway to citizenship.
Mr. Saipov is at least the third Uzbek to face terrorism accusations in recent years and the fifth person admitted under the visa lottery to face terrorism-related charges, giving ammunition to a White House that just last month proposed axing the lottery in any immigration bill in Congress.
“I am today starting the process of terminating the diversity lottery program. I’m going to ask Congress to immediately initiate work to get rid of this program,” Mr. Trump said at the White House. “We’re being stopped by Democrats because they’re obstructionists. And, honestly, they don’t want to do what’s right for our country.”
On Twitter, Mr. Trump targeted Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer for particular criticism, saying the New York Democrat’s work in helping create the diversity lottery in 1990 had fed the problem.
Mr. Schumer and fellow Democrats fired back, saying the president was politicizing a tragedy and urging him not to bring immigration into the terrorism debate. Mr. Schumer said Mr. Trump was failing a standard that President George W. Bush set in the hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“President Bush, in a moment of national tragedy, understood the meaning of his high office and sought to bring our country together. President Trump, where is your leadership?” Mr. Schumer said.
He said the solution to terrorist attacks was to boost federal funding for cities such as New York, and demanded that Mr. Trump recant part of his 2018 budget that would trim terrorism-fighting grants.
Republicans, though, sensed a shift in the immigration debate in the wake of the attack.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has been leading the push to legalize illegal immigrant “Dreamers,” said he now thinks canceling the diversity lottery should be part of any Dream Act bill that clears Congress.
“Count me in for wanting to eliminate the lottery system,” he said.
Mr. Graham’s voice is powerful in the immigration debate. He was part of the Gang of Eight senators who in 2013 struck a broad immigration deal to legalize most illegal immigrants. The bill also called for axing the diversity lottery.
Now, Mr. Graham is working on the Dream Act, which would grant permanent status to illegal immigrants protected by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals deportation amnesty.
But Mr. Graham’s partner in that effort, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, was silent Wednesday. His office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
The diversity lottery was created in 1990 after lawmakers concluded that the family-based immigration system enacted in 1965 ended up rewarding countries with long histories of immigration to the U.S.
The lottery explicitly excluded those high-immigration countries, reserving spots for countries that didn’t send a lot of citizens to the U.S.
“The visa lottery is like a cult in some countries, where it’s an annual event for people to apply,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Nearly 15 million people applied in 2015 for the 50,000 spots that are available each year.
Ms. Vaughan said the program is rife with fraud. Countries that dominate lottery applications are often places where it’s easy to fake documents to pass the low bar required to qualify for the diversity lottery, she said. Four of the top 10 lottery-winner countries are on the government’s watch list of terrorism-connected countries.
Uzbekistan, which is No. 5 on that list, was not a major source of lottery winners in the early years but became one of the more popular users of the program by this decade.
In 2010, the year Mr. Saipov immigrated, Uzbeks filed nearly 80,000 applications and 4,059 were offered visas. A total of 3,356 visas ultimately were issued to citizens of that country.
By 2015, the number of applications had grown tenfold to more than 800,000 — or about 1 in every 35 citizens of the Central Asian nation that borders Afghanistan. Of those, only a little more than 2,500 ended up gaining admission.
The other top-five lottery countries are Nepal, Egypt, Iran and Congo.
Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union but became independent after the USSR split in 1991. The nation is majority Muslim, but religious practice is strictly regulated at home. Some analysts say that repression has encouraged Uzbeks to become involved in terrorist attacks outside the country.
In the U.S., three terrorism-related cases have been tied back to Uzbeks.
One of those was Ulugbek Kodirov, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to attempting a terrorist plot to kill President Obama after arming himself with firearms and grenades. He came to the U.S. on a student visa in 2009, but it was revoked a year later because he never enrolled in school.
As for the diversity lottery, the Center for Immigration Studies counts at least four other visa winners who have been tied to terrorism in the U.S. since 2001.
One of those was the gunman who went on a shooting attack at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002, killing two people and wounding four. He came on a student visa and was denied asylum in the U.S., but he gained permanent status when his wife won the diversity lottery.
The program’s success stories, meanwhile, are chiefly sports stars. Ghana-born Freddy Adu, the onetime great hope of U.S. soccer, came to America because his mother won the diversity lottery.
Carly Goodman, who has studied the program, said the lottery is a major public relations benefit for the U.S.
“My research showed that many people in unexpected parts of the world have a positive impression of the United States because the lottery makes concrete the idea that they can achieve the American dream,” said Ms. Goodman, who is a public fellow at the American Friends Service Committee.
“People in many countries in Africa have no or few opportunities to emigrate, and the visa lottery is one way that people can possibly gain access to opportunities in the United States. And so it engenders hope in people and reflects well on the United States,” she said.
The lottery program has been a target on Capitol Hill for years. Some lawmakers say it has outlived its usefulness, and others argue that it has become a danger.
“Tragically, we have witnessed yet again that the visa lottery poses a threat to the safety of our citizens and the security of our nation,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Both the House and Senate have voted at different times to kill the program.
The Senate voted most recently during the 2013 immigration debate, when the Gang of Eight bill cleared the chamber.
The House vote came on a 2012 bill to nix the lottery and use the visas to increase immigration for science and technology workers. The tally was 245-139, with 27 Democrats joining almost all Republicans in trying to nix the program.
On Wednesday, House Democrats rallied to defend the program and painted Mr. Trump’s renewed desire to ax the lottery as racist. They said majority-Muslim and African countries are among the biggest beneficiaries of the lottery.
“Now that Trump, for all intents and purposes, is the head of the anti-immigration movement in the United States, of course he is going to attack the Diversity Visa Program and any other legal immigration he can restrict from the developing world,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat.