by Onoso Imoagene
Russell Sage Foundation, 2024
Paper: 978-0-87154-562-6 | eISBN: 978-1-61044-926-7
Library of Congress Classification JV6483.I568 2024
Dewey Decimal Classification 325.73

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program is a lottery that awards winners from underrepresented countries the chance to apply for legal permanent residence in the United States. Most lottery winners think of themselves as lucky, viewing the win as an opportunity to pursue better lives for themselves and their families. In Structured Luck, sociologist Onoso Imoagene uses immigrants’ stories to show that while the visa program benefits many recipients, the program’s design can also lead to exploitation in their countries of origin and reduced potential once they are in the United States.

Combining ethnographic observation in Africa and interviews with immigrants, their family members, and friends from Ghana and Nigeria, Imoagene demonstrates that the visa program is a process of “structured luck,” from how people hear about the lottery, who registers for it, and who participates in it to the application requirements for the visa. In Ghana and Nigeria, people often learn about the lottery through friends, colleagues, or relatives who persuade them to enter for the perceived benefits of receiving a visa: opportunities for upward mobility, permanent legal status, and the ability to bring along family members. Though anyone can enter the lottery, not everyone who wins obtains a visa. The visa application process requires proof of a high school diploma or artisan skills, a medical exam, a criminal background check, an interview with U.S. consular officers, and payment of fees.  Such requirements have led to the growth of visa entrepreneurs, who often charge exorbitant fees to steer immigrants through the process. Visa recipients who were on track to obtain university degrees at home often leave in the middle of their studies for the United States but struggle to continue their education due to high U.S. tuition costs. And though their legal status allows them to escape the demoralizing situations that face the undocumented, these immigrants lack the social support that the government sometimes provides for refugees and other migrants. Ultimately, Imoagene notes, the real winner of the visa lottery is not the immigrants themselves but the United States, which benefits from their relatively higher levels of education. Consequently, she argues, the U.S. must do more to minimize the visa program’s negative consequences.

Structured Luck illuminates the trauma, resilience, and determination of immigrants who come to the United States through the Diversity Visa Program and calls for the United States to develop policies that will better integrate them into society.