Sunday, April 2, 2023

Q&A with Carly Goodman




Carly Goodman is the author of the new book Dreamland: America's Immigration Lottery in an Age of Restriction. A historian, she is the senior editor at Made By History at The Washington Post and the communications coordinator for Nationalities Service Center, an immigration services agency in Philadelphia.


Q: What inspired you to write Dreamland, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: Thank you so much for inviting me to reflect on writing the book. I conducted most of the research for Dreamland when I was writing my dissertation on the diversity visa lottery and earning my Ph.D. in history from Temple University.


The project was born in an Internet café when I was in West Africa; my future husband and I were visiting his aunt, an American who retired in Ghana. We were traveling around and learning about the region, and when we’d stop to check our email at cafes to send messages home, we kept seeing people on the State Department website, looking up information about the lottery.


I knew about other parts of the immigration system, but hadn’t thought much about the lottery — yet here it loomed so large. I started having conversations about it, and was really curious about its origins and purpose.


Writing the lottery’s history kept pulling me in all these fascinating directions, from thinking about lotteries more broadly and luck, to trying to understand the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon, to digging through the history of Usenet newsgroups and Internet Spam, to trying to reckon with how the lottery’s place in the world was shifting in the past few years, since I completed my dissertation, and since the United States has had to reckon with the place of immigration in our country.


I really wanted to tell a ranging, global story about American power and the people whose lives and dreams are touched by U.S. policies.


Giving it the title of Dreamland came from my interviews with people in cafes in Ghana and Cameroon who used this framing to talk about the United States. I wanted the title to invite readers in, and I think that idea of the U.S. as a dreamland is an appealing fantasy, to Americans and non-Americans alike. What if there was a place where you could thrive?


But it also, I hope, pushes us to think about where the dream falls short, and for whom.


Q: What was the impetus behind the Diversity Visa Lottery, and what impact has it had since its creation?


A: I’ll start with the second part of the question. The Diversity Visa Lottery has enabled the immigration of people from around the world, especially Africa, where people had few opportunities for legal migration to the U.S.


While the legal pathways to the United States are highly limited — typically a person must be a close relative of a U.S. citizen, have an employment offer, or be seeking asylum or be resettled as a refugee — the lottery specifically exists so that people without preexisting ties to the U.S. can apply to be immigrants.


And in particular it targets people from countries without a large number of U.S. immigrants, so in that way it fosters diversity, ensuring that immigrants come from all over the world.


I mentioned Africa before because historically, few immigrants came voluntarily from Africa and Africans faced stark immigration restrictions. But over the last 30 years, there has been substantial immigration from Africa, and now there are over 2 million African immigrants living in the United States. African immigrants rely disproportionately on the Diversity Visa lottery to access visas.


That people have chosen to come and make lives here has enriched and diversified American communities, not something Americans should take for granted.


But knowing this impact makes the impetus behind the lottery all the more interesting. The policy was adopted in large part due to the advocacy and efforts of undocumented Irish immigrants who were disturbed when they could not access legal migration channels.


In 1965, the United States had finally ended a racist system of country quotas that had been adopted to ensure that immigration remained primarily Western and Northern European in the mid-20th century. The system that reformers adopted in its place was more liberal in some ways — no longer restricting immigration by country — but it was also essentially restrictive, and it had an emphasis on family unification.


Irish immigrants had enjoyed an ample quota under the old system, but in the 1970s and 1980s, they felt the system was unfairly shutting them out — many did not have relatives to sponsor them. So they went to Washington and advocated for policies that would be open to immigrants without close ties to the U.S., with an emphasis on countries that (by then) sent few immigrants to the United States.


They said doing so would add diversity to the United States. They tended to mean Europeans and people like them. But the Diversity Visa lottery policy eventually created in the Immigration Act of 1990 was more expansive, and has clearly had some unexpected outcomes!

Q: The historian Daniel Immerwahr said of the book, “For nearly thirty years, amidst loud arguments about the border, the United States has been quietly letting people into the country at random. And it’s gone surprisingly well. This sharp, deeply researched book tells a fresh story about immigration—one we badly need to hear.” What do you think of that description?


A: I am very grateful to Professor Immerwahr for his support for my project and the book! He is someone who thinks astutely about storytelling and about the value of history for the reading public, beyond academics and academic spaces.


His quote here reminds me of how important it is to question the terms of the debate. So often in our politics, we see immigration being spoken of as a problem to be solved, as a crisis, as something broken. Obviously this happened loudly and violently during the Trump administration, but I see it all the time and even sometimes by advocates and others who support immigrants.


This obscures other ways we could think and talk and act about immigration, and the choice is deeply harmful — to all of us who want to live in a society that welcomes immigrants, but especially to immigrants themselves.


Maybe telling more and different stories about immigration — for example, about all the ways that policies like the visa lottery enrich our communities — we can broaden our conversations. I write in the book about how the mismatch between the attention paid to the lottery abroad and its relative obscurity here in the United States (at least before 2017) means that something interesting is going on.


I should say that people aren’t really admitted “randomly” — the selection of lottery winners is random, and then people must apply for visas to be admitted. But the lottery aspect of it is important!


I write in the book about how this helps make the program popular and laces it through with hope and the idea of opportunity, while also reflecting how efforts to select immigrants by “merit” — which is often used to mean white, educated, wealthy — miss how we all bring talents and capacities to this world and to our communities.


But the flip side of this is how luck and chance have come to occupy this outsized role, how access to a good life depends on where you are born, or being in the right place at the right time, rather than something we are collectively building.


Daniel’s quote should also remind us that efforts to shut down the lottery — which has been a successful policy and has all in all been a good thing for the United States — are not about fixing the system, but about restricting immigration, and in particular, restricting Black immigration. Failing to register that is one danger of accepting the framework that sees immigration as a problem.


Q: What do you see looking ahead?


A: The diversity visa lottery remains part of our immigration system, but it was severely undermined during the Trump administration, and even now there is litigation ongoing on behalf of lottery winners who were denied the chance to come to the United States.


Legislative remedies for those folks — and many others — seem unlikely in this Congress. The Biden administration has extended and expanded the restrictionist stance that many associate with Trump, with Haitians and other asylum seekers bearing the brunt of these harms.


At the same time, we see all these threats to U.S. democracy, from those undermining voting rights to the January 6 insurrectionists. Looking ahead, I think it’s important to be clear-eyed about the threat that white supremacy poses and to recognize its violence at work in our immigration system and throughout our society. Welcoming immigrants and creating communities where we can all thrive — this has to be more than a dream.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My second book is a contemporary history of the anti-immigration movement, focused on the vision and work of John Tanton, an ophthalmologist from Michigan who came out of the environmental and population control movements of the 1960s and established and funded the most powerful immigration restriction organizations of the last 40 years. He helped frame immigration restrictions that would preserve white dominance as common sense.


As I write in Dreamland, those efforts shifted the terrain of immigration policy and the experiences of visa lottery winners since the program’s inception, dissolving the consensus that imagined America’s future as bright, abundant, and diverse. We are living in the long shadow of Tanton’s successes now.


I also work as a senior editor at Made By History where we publish historical analysis for a nonspecialist audience through The Washington Post, and I am working on external communications at a wonderful immigration services agency in Philadelphia called Nationalities Service Center.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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