A bill to abolish the U.S. government's annual visa lottery, which awards slots for legal entry into the United States, introduced by Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte, has been referred by the Judiciary Committee to the full House.

Every year millions of would-be immigrants take a gamble and submit their names for the U.S. government's annual visa lottery. The odds of getting permission to move to the United States are slim at best — nearly 15 million people applied in 2010 for 55,000 visas — and could get slimmer.

Critics of the lottery argue that problems of fraud and the potential for the program to be exploited by terrorists make it a threat to national security.

"It's an open invitation for fraud and a jackpot for terrorists," Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith said. The Texas Republican added that the goal of the program, to increase the diversity of immigrants coming into the country, has already been met with the more than 785,000 visas issued as part of the program since 1995.

Democratic opponents, including Michigan Democrat John Conyers, countered that eliminating the visa lottery would essentially end legal immigration from African nations and reduce the overall number of visas available to all immigrants.

"The diversity program has always been an important part of our immigration system," Conyers said. "I'm looking to improve it. It provides a legal option for qualified individuals. Without this program our immigration system would look very different, and not in a good way."

Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee tried to amend the bill to ask the Department of Homeland Security to review the program and make recommendations to fix any flaws, but was rebuffed by Republicans who argued the program has been studied before and each audit revealed significant problems.

"It has long been fraught with fraud; fraud from applicants and third party brokers," Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., said. "A lottery by its very nature is a gamble and it's a gamble our national security cannot afford."

The visa lottery, first held in 1995, was designed to increase the number of immigrants from the developing world and countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States. Each year about 90,000 names are selected at random and that number is reduced to no more than 55,000 through attrition, interviews and various eligibility rules.

This year's lottery results were scrapped when a computer program problem was discovered. The software used to randomly pick winners somehow selected about 90 percent of people who applied during the first day of the month-long application period.

A federal judge in Washington last week dismissed a lawsuit from several people initially told they had won. The State Department held a new lottery Friday.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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