I knew we were hungry because my mother never ate apples, just cores.
She sliced the meat of the fruit for me, and my father, if he was visiting us. But she would only nibble at what was left. I knew we were in danger because of the practice runs to the bomb shelter in our apartment building. We would bundle into blankets and head to the basement that reeked of souring cabbage. I tried to figure out what was happening, eavesdropping on my mother and grandparents as they sat in whispered discussion. But their faces would break into smiles when they saw me lurking in the doorway.
All families in distress try to shield their children first. And mine couldn’t possibly explain to me that war had led to hyperinflation and sanctions, which were starving the country. They didn’t tell me my grandfather was making trips to the Macedonian border to smuggle food back home to Serbia, as my grandmother would try to make do for a family of five. Or that the government’s grip on the media meant that nobody knew exactly what was true and what wasn’t.
They also didn’t tell me that in those hushed conversations, they were making plans to win the lottery.
The diversity immigrant visa program offers 55,000 green cards every year to people from countries with low emigration rates to the United States. It’s referred to as the green card lottery, although that name implies a free-for-all, which isn’t quite the case. The current version of the system was enshrined into law with the Immigration Act of 1990.
But a version of the diversity lottery has existed since the 1970s and ’80s, when 10,000 special visas were made available to immigrants who had been “adversely affected” by immigration reform. Under the new system that prioritized family, employment, and humanitarian cases, Irish and Italian immigrants found themselves shut out. The diversity lottery was a way to draw immigrants who might not be a priority under the new criteria, and whose countries had not met their immigration caps.
The green cards are only available to people who meet certain educational or professional requirements, and applications still have to pass the standards established for all immigrants — after submitting her documents, my mother had to sit for a health exam and an interview, a process that took over a year. As a result of the stringent criteria, most applications get thrown out of consideration. But the mechanism for selecting applicants who will be interviewed is random, like a lottery.
After the Uzbekistani native who killed eight people in Manhattan Monday was found to be a recipient of one of these green cards, President Trump called for the program’s end.
Serbia in 1999 was as turbulent as any country on the current travel-ban list. The military and government led by Slobodan Milošević were guilty of ethnic cleansing — a term that doesn’t do enough to describe the rape and murder of the region’s minority Muslim population. On top of all of that, we were actively at war with the United States and NATO, which had imposed sanctions first, and then started to drop bombs in order to deter the genocide. Still, Serbia was included in the list of countries eligible for the diversity lottery, showing a willingness on the United States’ part to distinguish between the actual perpetrators of violence and the victims on all sides caught in a war they didn’t want.
The lottery was, my mother felt, the best chance to get me out of a period of war that had lasted nearly a decade, and was only escalating. She had heard rumors of this visa from relatives who already lived abroad. She sent in her application and crossed her fingers.
Back then, just two years after the program was started in 1995, ours was one of 4.7 million entries to the lottery, but the system has only gotten more competitive. In 2015, there were 14 million entries. In 2012, an immigrant from Serbia would have had just a 1.5% chance of winning a green card. Now most winners of the lottery are from Asia and Africa.
On our last night in Serbia, while walking home with my grandmother, I waved to a friend of mine passing by and told her I’d see her later in the bomb shelter. I, of course, didn’t realize the gravity of my words, but they were enough to drive my grandmother to tears. When I was woken up again that night, I expected another run to the basement. But I was stuffed into a car instead, along with our suitcases, and told we were going on a trip.
They couldn’t tell me the truth for fear that I would volunteer that information to any authorities who stopped us. But we had won our green cards, and the trip was to America. My grandparents drove us to the Hungarian border, where my mother, a physician, told authorities that we were visiting relatives in Hungary. She feared she wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country, as doctors were scarce and in high demand amid the bombings.
Once we were over the border, in a van to catch a flight in Budapest, my mother finally told me we were leaving our home country for good. I was relieved. I told her that it was a smart move, that “they probably won’t bomb us in their own country.”
After we arrived in California to live with my aunt, I hoarded snack-size bags of chips under my bed because I was still afraid of being hungry. My mother was bombarded with the well-meaning questions typically lobbed at immigrants: Where’s your accent from? How do you pronounce that name?
But I flourished. I learned English, speaking it in broken pieces at school just like my classmates from Mexico, Korea, and the Philippines. I loved it enough to study it in school, and went to my dream universities to pursue my studies further.
Young enough to lose my accent, I blended seamlessly into the American social fabric. My maiden name and my nose sometimes gave me away, but no one ever threatened my citizenship or my safety in this country, or scooted away from me on public transit, or implied that the program that eventually gave me citizenship is “bad.”
I have asked how I’m different from the immigrants that this administration would like to ban from entering the United States. Given the state of my home country at the time of my emigration, it seems that 5-year-old me should have been deemed just as dangerous as a Syrian child now.
The answer is always the same: “Well, we don’t mean you.”
It can’t mean anything other than my white skin and birthplace in a majority-Christian nation, the qualities that gave me the ability to blend here, make me a “safe” immigrant.
But it’s ludicrous to assume that if the lottery wasn’t available, my family wouldn’t have looked for other ways to leave the country. Decent parents will protect their children in any way possible, whether that means immigrating legally or illegally, and the lottery is another legal channel for people like my mother. We got lucky, but we’re not special.
There are honest critiques of the program. For one, how fair is it when hopeful immigrants from Central and South America are waiting years to reunite with their families? And those critiques are worth addressing. But using fearmongering as an excuse to completely dismantle the lottery does not do that.
Like all of our immigration policies, the green card lottery has allowed exponentially more people like me into the United States than people like Sayfullo Saipov. To end the program and close ourselves off indicates we’re not interested in any more diversity, thanks. And as part of a larger trend toward closed borders, it shows we’ve lost the collective empathy that treated me as more than a daughter of an unstable homeland. ●
Aleksandra Appleton is a journalist and writer based in California.