Thou­sands to lose ‘golden ticket’ to US

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - — Reuters

Ye­men is urg­ing the US gov­ern­ment to take in dozens of Ye­me­nis who trav­eled to Malaysia in re­cent months ex­pect­ing to im­mi­grate to the United States, only to find them­selves stranded by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s tem­po­rary travel ban. The ban, which was blocked by lower courts be­fore be­ing par­tially re­in­stated by the Supreme Court in June, tem­po­rar­ily bars cit­i­zens of Ye­men and five other Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries with no “bona fide” con­nec­tions to the United States from trav­el­ing there.

The Supreme Court rul­ing sharply lim­ited the num­ber of peo­ple af­fected by the ban. Largely un­re­ported has been the fate of one group - thou­sands of cit­i­zens of the six coun­tries who won a ran­dom­ized US gov­ern­ment lottery last year that en­abled them to ap­ply for a so-called green card grant­ing them per­ma­nent res­i­dence in the United States.

In a stroke of bad luck for the lottery win­ners, the 90-day travel ban will ex­pire on Sept 27, just three days be­fore their el­i­gi­bil­ity for the green cards ex­pires. Given the slow pace of the im­mi­gra­tion process, the State De­part­ment will likely strug­gle to is­sue their visas in time. A re­cent email from the US gov­ern­ment to lottery win­ners still await­ing their visas warned “it is plau­si­ble that your case will not be is­suable” due to the travel ban.

The lottery at­tracts about 14 mil­lion ap­pli­cants each year, many of whom view it as a chance at the “Amer­i­can Dream.” It serves as a po­tent sym­bol of US open­ness abroad, de­spite the fact that the chance of suc­cess is minis­cule - about 0.3 per­cent, or slightly fewer than 50,000, of lottery en­trants ac­tu­ally got a green card in 2015. The pro­gram helps to fos­ter an im­age of Amer­ica “as a coun­try which wel­comes im­mi­grants and im­mi­gra­tion from around the world, but also es­pe­cially from Africa,” said John­nie Car­son, a for­mer US as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for African af­fairs dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Some for­mer diplo­mats worry the travel ban’s im­pact on the lottery could tar­nish that im­age of in­clu­sive­ness. “Tak­ing this away from peo­ple who have won it is the cru­elest pos­si­ble thing this ad­min­is­tra­tion could do,” said Stephen Pat­ti­son, a for­mer se­nior State De­part­ment con­sular of­fi­cial. “It makes us look petty and cruel as a so­ci­ety.”

Reuters spoke to dozens of lottery win­ners from Ye­men, Iran and Syria, in­clud­ing about 20 who are still wait­ing for their visas to be is­sued. Many de­clined to be named so as not to risk their ap­pli­ca­tions but pro­vided emails and other doc­u­ments to help con­firm their ac­counts. They de­scribed hav­ing spent thou­sands of dol­lars on the ap­pli­ca­tion process, and many said they had de­layed hav­ing chil­dren, sold prop­erty and turned down lu­cra­tive job of­fers at home be­cause they as­sumed they would soon be mov­ing to the United States.

An Ar­du­ous Jour­ney

For Ye­me­nis, the sit­u­a­tion is par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult. Be­cause the United States does not main­tain a diplo­matic post in Ye­men, its cit­i­zens are as­signed to other coun­tries to ap­ply for their visas, and many of them to travel to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The jour­ney to a coun­try 6,400 km away can be ex­pen­sive and ar­du­ous for Ye­me­nis, whose coun­try, the Mid­dle East’s poor­est, is em­broiled in a two-year con­flict.

Most of the Ye­me­nis who come to Malaysia make their first stop at a high-rise apart­ment build­ing on the out­skirts of the cap­i­tal, where they have built a small com­mu­nity. Be­cause of im­mi­gra­tion re­stric­tions, they are not al­lowed to work and are slowly run­ning out of money. Most sur­vive from funds do­nated by other Ye­me­nis or sent by rel­a­tives back home. “Imag­ine you get no­ti­fied you got the golden ticket, only to have it yanked away,” said Joshua Gold­stein, a US im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney who ad­vises lottery win­ners.

The so-called “di­ver­sity visa” pro­gram was passed in its cur­rent form by Congress in 1990 to pro­vide a path to US res­i­dency for cit­i­zens from a range of coun­tries with his­tor­i­cally low rates of im­mi­gra­tion to the United States. Be­cause it has rel­a­tively few ed­u­ca­tional or pro­fes­sional re­quire­ments, it tends to at­tract peo­ple from poorer coun­tries. In Ghana and Sierra Leone, for in­stance, more than 6 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion in each of the West African na­tions en­tered the lottery in 2015.

Ye­meni of­fi­cials in Washington launched talks with the State De­part­ment this month to find a way to get dozens of Ye­meni lottery win­ners into the United States de­spite the travel ban, said Ye­men’s am­bas­sador to the United States, Ahmed bin Mubarak. “They’ve been in Malaysia for more than six months and sold ev­ery­thing in Ye­men,” bin Mubarak said. “We are do­ing what we can.”

US of­fi­cials said they would work with Ye­men’s gov­ern­ment to help those who qual­ify for ex­cep­tions to the travel ban to be al­lowed in on a case-by-case ba­sis, said Mo­hammed Al-Hadhrami, a diplo­mat at Ye­men’s em­bassy in Washington. A State De­part­ment of­fi­cial de­clined to com­ment on how the United States was work­ing with Ye­men on the is­sue.

It is un­clear ex­actly how many lottery win­ners are now caught up in the travel ban, which af­fects Iran, Libya, So­ma­lia, Su­dan, Syria and Ye­men, but in 2015, more than 10,000 peo­ple from the six coun­tries won the lottery, and 4,000 of them even­tu­ally got visas. Ye­meni of­fi­cials pro­vided Reuters with a list of Ye­meni lottery win­ners, mostly in Malaysia, which they have also given to the State De­part­ment. It showed 58 Ye­me­nis still wait­ing for a re­sponse to their ap­pli­ca­tions, in­clud­ing some who have been stuck in se­cu­rity checks for more than eight months.

The State De­part­ment de­clined to com­ment on the fig­ures, but de­part­men­tal data shows that 206 Ye­me­nis re­ceived di­ver­sity visas be­tween March and June. Fol­low­ing the June 26 Supreme Court rul­ing, State De­part­ment of­fi­cials told lottery win­ners from the six coun­tries that their visas would not be granted dur­ing the 90day pe­riod the travel ban is in place un­less they can demon­strate close fam­ily ties or other ap­proved con­nec­tions to a per­son or in­sti­tu­tion in the United States, ac­cord­ing to an email seen by Reuters. Ye­meni of­fi­cials are scram­bling to help the coun­try’s lottery win­ners demon­strate how they might qual­ify for an ex­emp­tion and are also push­ing to get a waiver for those who don’t have any re­la­tion­ships, Hadhrami said.

Rafek Ahmed Al-Sanani, a 22-year-old farmer with a high school ed­u­ca­tion, is among the Ye­me­nis stuck in Malaysia. He trav­eled there in De­cem­ber via a route that in­cluded a 22-hour bus ride fol­lowed by flights to Egypt, Qatar and fi­nally Malaysia. “I was the first one to ap­ply for the lottery in my fam­ily,” said Sanani, one of nine chil­dren in a fam­ily from Ibb gov­er­norate in Ye­men’s north. “I want to come to the United States to learn English and con­tinue my stud­ies.” Sanani said he had to bor­row $10,000 to pay for his trip to Malaysia and liv­ing ex­penses. As he waits to hear the out­come of his ap­pli­ca­tion, he is re­signed to his fate. “What can I do?” he said. “I will ac­cept re­al­ity.”

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