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‘Green card lottery’ blunder comes as program’s future is in question

Published on Fri, Jul 15, 2011

For Olivier Millogo, there was one last chance to hit this year’s jackpot.

He’d been lucky the first time in May, winning a prized slot in the State Department’s “green card lottery” and a chance to live and work legally in the United States.

But 12 days later, the 36-year-old from Burkina Faso was crushed when federal officials discovered a computer problem with the drawing and canceled the results. A second drawing on Friday brought no good news for him.

“I’m not selected,” said Millogo, who lives in Alexandria and is attending DeVry University on a student visa. “There is nothing to do.”

A class-action lawsuit was filed to block the new drawing, but a federal judge dismissed the case, clearing the way for it. The decision dashed the dreams of 22,000 would-be winners from around the world who had hoped the lottery’s initial results would be reinstated.

The program they had applied for, the Diversity Visa Lottery, attracts millions of applicants worldwide and each year provides about 50,000 immigrants a legal route to permanent residency in the United States. The mix-up over this year’s drawing comes as some lawmakers question whether it should continue.

Begun in 1995 with the backing of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the lottery is unknown to many Americans but has stood as a symbol of hope for millions seeking the opportunity to transform their lives. But it has been pulled into the larger debate over immigration, with critics saying it is rife with security risks and brings no benefits to the United States.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to discuss a bill to drop it.

“If you’re a terrorist organization and you can get a few hundred people to apply to this from several countries . . . odds are you’d get one or two of them picked,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who introduced the bill, said in an interview.

An earlier version of the bill twice passed in the House in recent years but was rejected by the Senate in part, Goodlatte said, because of the support of Kennedy, who died in 2009. But with high unemployment in the United States, he said, “it’s hard to justify bringing an additional 50,000 in that need a job and will be competing with the 14 million Americans for jobs.”

Supporters of the program say that lottery winners and their families undergo the same rigorous security screening as any other visa applicant and that the congressional hearing is a distraction.

“At a time when we should be focusing on our economy and how immigrants can play a positive role, the House is now simply taking cheap shots at legal forms of immigration,” said Michele Waslin, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center. “Eliminating the diversity visa program will do nothing to fix our broken immigration system and nothing to grow our economy.”

Last year, a record 15 million people applied for the lottery. Unlike other immigrant visas that require applicants to demonstrate close family ties, specific job skills or humanitarian need, the lottery is open to anyone who has completed high school, can pass criminal and security background checks, does not fall under any other inadmissibility in immigration law, and has not applied more than once for the same drawing.

Citizens of countries that already have large numbers of nationals in the United States, including Mexico, the Philippines and India, are not eligible. Also, no more than 7 percent of winners can come from one country in a given year.

Each year, 90,000 to 100,000 applicants are selected at random and may apply for the 50,000 available visas, based on the order in which they were selected. Qualified people on the list who are not selected before the year is up, or before the 50,000 visas run out, lose their slot and must start over in a subsequent lottery — one reason that State Department officials urge people not to quit jobs or make other major decisions until they have a visa in hand.

Those who get the visas can move to the United States with their immediate families and eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship.

“It can be a potentially life-changing moment,” said Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Proponents say the lottery provides the United States with a more diverse mix of ethnicities and nationalities — and the occasional gem. Freddy Adu, the child soccer prodigy, came to the United States from Ghana at age 8 when his father won the lottery.

“When they got the mail in their mailbox, they called me,” said Tony Yeboah, Adu’s uncle, with whom they lived when they first came to Maryland. “They were excited.” Once here, the teenage Adu earned spots on the U.S. Olympic and national teams and launched his international professional career. Without the lottery, his uncle said, Adu, now 22, “would be an average schoolboy” in Ghana.

The problem with this year’s lottery involved a mistake in the computer coding that caused most of the original winners to be selected from among those who applied in the first two days of the 30-day application period, denying the remaining applicants an equal shot.

The would-be winners had filed a class-action requesting that a federal court reinstate their selection and block the new drawing. But on Thursday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sided with the State Department in her finding that May’s lottery did not select the applicants in a “strictly random order” as required by law.

In the 12 days after being notified that they had won, some of the initial winners spent money on filing fees, got married or sold land to prepare for their journeys, their attorneys said. U.S. government lawyers said in court that they expect the filing fees to be refunded.

Even for those who did not suffer financially, the psychological blow was tough.

“My first thought was, ‘How could a country do something like this?’ ” said Millogo, the DeVry student. “The respect that I have for this country, the values that I believe that it stands for did not reflect what I was experiencing . . . . I still do not get why they couldn’t keep their word once they made a public commitment.”

He said he doesn’t know whether he will apply again next year but hopes that at least he will be able to finish his bachelor’s degree, which will enhance his chances of getting a job if he has to return to Burkina Faso.

Egor Emeliyanov, a native of Russia who also was erroneously told that he had won, was philosophical after learning that he didn’t get picked a second time Friday.

“It’s a lottery, after all,” said Emeliyanov, a database administrator who lives in Rosslyn with his wife, who also applied and was not selected. “You cannot rely on Powerball or the D.C. lottery as a source of income, and you cannot rely on the diversity lottery as your way into the United States.”

And, he noted, there is always next year.

Published in the Washington Post | Read Article