Dreamland: America’s Immigration Lottery in an Age of Restriction

In a world of border walls and obstacles to migration, a lottery where winners can gain permanent residency in the United States sounds too good to be true. Just as unlikely is the idea that the United States would make such visas available to foster diversity within a country where systemic racism endures. But in 1990, the United States Diversity Visa Lottery was created to do just that.

Dreamland tells the surprising story of this unlikely government program and its role in American life as well as the global story of migration. Historian Carly Goodman takes readers from Washington, D.C., where proponents deployed a colorblind narrative about our “nation of immigrants” to secure visas for white immigrants, to the African countries where it flourished and fostered dreams of going to America. From the post office to the internet, aspiring emigrants, visa agents, and others embraced the lottery and tried their luck in a time of austerity and limits. Rising African immigration to the United States has enriched American life, created opportunities for mobility, and nourished imagined possibilities. But the promise of the American dream has been threatened by the United States’ embrace of anti-immigrant policies and persistent anti-Black racism.


Dreamland ventures into the streets, shops, and cafes of Ghana and Cameroon where we see the rippling impact of the Diversity Visa Lottery on the lives of ordinary West Africans. With vivid storytelling, Goodman reconstructs this ironic twist in U.S. immigration policy. An absolute knockout for understanding the impact of neoliberalism on the everyday workings of international migration.”—Ellen Wu, author of The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority

“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.”—Daniel Immerwahr, author of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States

“Goodman is a powerful storyteller, and the story she tells is a critical one. It’s the story of how the U.S. diversity visa lottery program has promoted America as a ‘dreamland’ for immigrants. But it is also the story of how racism and xenophobia have fueled a powerful backlash against immigration that continues today. Meticulously researched and engagingly told, Dreamland is essential reading for anyone interested in recent African immigration as well as the ways in which global inequality and anti-Blackness shape U.S. immigration policy. And that should be all of us.”—Erika Lee, author of America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States

“This isn’t just the essential book about the diversity visa lottery. It’s a vibrantly peopled, tremendously clear-eyed look at how the United States sees the world and vice versa. This book will reshape how you think about immigration and possibly America.”—Dara Lind, American Immigration Council

Dreamland is a brilliant exploration of U.S. immigration at the close of the twentieth century. Carly Goodman’s vividly written, closely observed story travels from the economically depressed regions of Ireland to the marbled U.S. Capitol to the internet cafes of Nigeria and Cameroon. Along the way, she uncovers the story not only of the diversity lottery but of migrant flows, global capitalism, and the dreams of would-be immigrants across the world.”—Nicole Hemmer, author of Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s


Library Journal: “Essential reading for those interested in the past and future of U.S. immigration policy.”

Kirkus Reviews: “Goodman offers a strong defense for the visa lottery, which is not weighted by country, allowing immigrants from all over Africa. Moreover, it has proven to be an instrument of goodwill not just in the Cold War era, but also in the post–9/11 years. As one Ghanaian told the author, “In the whole world it is only America that is open,” a sentiment that altogether too many nativists would like to disprove.A well-reasoned, evenhanded account of the immigration system.”

Dreamland is featured on Publishers Weekly’s Adult Books for Spring 2023 Announcements. 

Nicole Hemmer on the Ezra Klein podcast (January 20, 2023): “It’s a fascinating story. It seems like it’s about a small thing, but it’s actually this big, beautiful, sprawling story about immigration in recent years.”

Book Q&A with Deborah Kalb


June 13, 12 PM, People, Politics, and Prose at Foreign Policy Research Institute, 123 S. Broad St, Suite 1920, Philadelphia, PA.

Past Events

April 11, 5 PM Central, Immigration History Research Seminar (Zoom Webinar), with Ibrahim Hirsi

May 6, 2:15-3:15 PM, “Land of the Free” panel with Alexis Romay, Marina Budhos and Anne Burt, co-presented with B’nai Keshet synagogue, Succeed2gether’s Montclair Literary Festival, Montclair Public Library Auditorium, South Fullerton Ave, Montclair 07042

May 10, 7 PM, Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008, with Dara Lind. Buy Dreamland from Politics and Prose. Signed copies are available at the bookstore!

May 16, 7 PM, Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Rd, Raleigh, NC 27609, in partnership with Amnesty International Raleigh. Buy Dreamland from Quail Ridge Books.

Podcast Interviews/Recorded Talks

IHRC Book talk on YouTube

Unsung History

Skipped History