The Diver­sity Visa

Mil­lions ap­ply. Fewer than 1% get in. And now many won­der whether their chances are end­ing.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL E. MILLER

Lot­tery takes place Tues­day, with mil­lions — in­clud­ing some in the D.C. re­gion — hop­ing to be one of the randomly se­lected for­eign­ers to get per­ma­nent U.S. res­i­dency.

On Tues­day, more than 14 mil­lion peo­ple around the world, in­clud­ing anx­ious ap­pli­cants in the Washington area, will be­gin check­ing com­put­ers and smart­phones in one of the strangest rit­u­als of the U.S. im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem. When the clock strikes noon in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, they will be able to visit a State De­part­ment web­site, en­ter their names, years of birth and 16-digit iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­bers. Then they will press “sub­mit” to learn whether they have won one of the world’s most cov­eted con­tests: the U.S. green-card lot­tery.

Each year, the Diver­sity Visa Lot­tery, as it is of­fi­cially known, pro­vides up to 50,000 randomly se­lected for­eign­ers — fewer than 1 per­cent of those who en­ter the draw­ing — with per­ma­nent res­i­dency in the United States.

The cur­rent lot­tery co­in­cides with an in­tense de­bate over im­mi­gra­tion and comes amid pol­icy changes that have made the coun­try less wel­com­ing to new ar­rivals. Pres­i­dent Trump has cracked down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion and pressed for­ward with plans to build a wall along the bor­der with Mex­ico. He has is­sued ex­ec­u­tive or­ders tar­get­ing for­eign work­ers, refugees and trav­el­ers from cer­tain ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries.

Tarig El­hakim, 22, a doc­tor from Su­dan, ob­tained a green card through the Diver­sity Visa Lot­tery. He now lives in Arlington.

But he hasn’t said a word about the green-card lot­tery.

Its days may be num­bered, nonethe­less. The lot­tery ap­pears to con­flict with the pres­i­dent’s call for a “merit-based” im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem. And at least two bills in the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Congress seek to elim­i­nate the pro­gram.

“The Diver­sity Lot­tery is plagued with fraud, ad­vances no eco­nomic or hu­man­i­tar­ian in­ter­est, and does not even de­liver the diver­sity of its name­sake,” ac­cord­ing to a news re­lease from Sen. Tom Cot­ton (R-Ark.), a co-spon­sor of one of the bills.

In the eyes of its sup­port­ers, the lot­tery pro­vides the United States with pos­i­tive pub­lic re­la­tions, coun­ter­ing the per­cep­tion that the coun­try no longer lives up to the ideals sym­bol­ized by the Statue of Lib­erty.

For past win­ners and cur­rent ap­pli­cants, the lot­tery is some­thing sim­pler: a golden ticket that not even the United States’s cur­rent po­lit­i­cal tur­moil can tar­nish.

“It changed my life,” said Vic­tor Otero, 43, an ac­coun­tant from Venezuela who won in 2009 and moved to Mary­land a year later. “Look at what has hap­pened to [ Venezuela] while I’ve been here. I feel priv­i­leged.”

The lot­tery’s premise is sim­ple. It’s not con­nected to em­ploy­ment or fam­ily mem­bers in the United States. In­stead, the only re­quire­ment is that en­trants be adults with a high school diploma or two years of work ex­pe­ri­ence. Win­ners can bring spouses and chil­dren. Cit­i­zens of coun­tries that have sent 50,000 peo­ple to the United States in the past five years — such as Canada, China, In­dia, Nige­ria and Mex­ico — are in­el­i­gi­ble to par­tic­i­pate.

The lot­tery, launched in its present form in 1995, is es­pe­cially beloved in Eastern Europe and Africa. In re­cent years, the two re­gions have ac­counted for more than two-thirds of lot­tery win­ners. In Liberia and other coun­tries in western Africa coun­tries, nearly 10 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion ap­plies each year.

Around the world, busi­nesses con­nected to the lot­tery — In­ter­net cafes, travel agen­cies, pass­port-photo stu­dios — have boomed. But so have scams in which peo­ple are tricked into pay­ing money to en­ter the lot­tery, which is free. Bo­gus, of­fi­cial-look­ing web­sites are com­mon. Some­times, com­pa­nies en­ter peo­ple with­out their knowl­edge, then hold their ac­cess in­for­ma­tion for ran­som, State De­part­ment of­fi­cials said.

Otero paid a com­pany $150 to en­ter. When he won, the com­pany de­manded an ad­di­tional $3,000 be­fore an Amer­i­can friend told him he didn’t have to pay.

En­tries plum­meted when the lot­tery moved on­line in 2003 but have since re­bounded. Fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware now al­lows the State De­part­ment to de­tect mul­ti­ple en­tries, which are not al­lowed. Ev­ery year, roughly a quar­ter of the en­tries are thrown out.

The pro­gram — op­er­ated from a con­sular cen­ter in Wil­liams­burg, Ky. — has been on the chop­ping block be­fore. It came un­der at­tack in 2002 af­ter an Egyp­tian ter­ror­ist who killed two peo­ple in Los Angeles was found to be in the United States through his wife’s diver­sity visa. Mo­hamed Atta, an­other Egyp­tian and one of the 9/11 sui­cide pi­lots, had en­tered the lot­tery twice be­fore en­ter­ing the United States on a dif­fer­ent visa to study avi­a­tion.

“If you’re a ter­ror­ist or­ga­niza- tion 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.) told The Washington Post in 2011 af­ter in­tro­duc­ing an ill-fat- ed bill to kill the pro­gram.

State De­part­ment of­fi­cials in­sist that lot­tery win­ners are vet­ted just as thor­oughly as other po­ten­tial im­mi­grants to the United States.

In 2013, the last time Congress at­tempted a bi­par­ti­san overhaul of im­mi­gra­tion law, a bill pro­posed by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) would have axed the pro­gram. When the im­mi­gra­tion ef­fort died, the lot­tery got an­other lease on life.

Since its in­cep­tion, the lot­tery has brought more than a mil­lion peo­ple to the United States. But not all the win­ners end up with green cards. Some never fol­low up. Oth­ers can­not pro­vide doc­u­ments, fail in-per­son in­ter­views at lo­cal em­bassies or con­sulates, or get cold feet.

Win­ning is of­ten a mixed bless­ing. Once awarded a visa, win­ners have only six months to move to the United States. They must hur­riedly wind up their af­fairs, leave be­hind ca­reers and rel­a­tives, and pick a new place to live.

Tarig El­hakim was in med­i­cal school in Su­dan when his fa­ther per­suaded him to ap­ply in the fall of 2014. He was stunned when he won. He be­gan study­ing Amer­i­can his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy in prepa­ra­tion for his move. And he spent months bat­tling Su­danese bu­reau­crats for doc­u­ments, which then had to be trans­lated into English.

His in­ter­view wasn’t un­til Au­gust of last year. At the U.S. Em­bassy, he saw one de­jected ap­pli­cant af­ter an­other emerge from the in­ter­view room. But when it was his turn, the of­fi­cial stamped his pa­pers and said, “Wel­come to Amer­ica.”

“I had goose bumps all over my body,” said El­hakim, 22. “It was the one of the hap­pi­est mo­ments of my life.”

But Amer­ica was chang­ing. In 2015, Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump called for a ban on Mus­lims such as El­hakim com­ing to the United States. Then Trump was elected pres­i­dent in Novem­ber.

El­hakim de­cided he had bet­ter move to the United States be­fore Trump took of­fice. He flew to Washington on Dec. 28, less than a month be­fore the in­au­gu­ra­tion. He now lives in Arlington, Va., and is study­ing for his med­i­cal li­cense so he can work as a doc­tor here.

Even if the green-card lot­tery sur­vives an­other ses­sion of Congress, Trump’s court-stymied en­try bans have al­ready sown con­fu­sion over the pro­gram. Of the six ma­jor­i­tyMus­lim coun­tries in­cluded in the most re­cent pro­posed ban, peo­ple in two — Iran and Su­dan — were among the big­gest win­ners of diver­sity visas in 2016.

“If the in­junc­tion on the travel ban is lifted, it would ap­ply to this pro­gram, and no one from the banned coun­tries would be al­lowed to en­ter,” said Ben John­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Im­mi­gra­tion Lawyers As­so­ci­a­tion. Even if the en­try ban never goes into ef­fect, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s threats of “ex­treme vet­ting” could slow the process so much that win­ners are un­able to come to the United States, John­son added.

Among those anx­iously await­ing this year’s re­sults is El­hakim’s room­mate, Ab­del­salam Kha­lafalla. The 24-year-old was born to Su­danese par­ents in Saudi Ara­bia and grew up there but does not have Saudi cit­i­zen­ship. He is in the United States on a stu­dent visa that will one day ex­pire.

“Go­ing back to Su­dan or Saudi is not an op­tion for me,” he said.

And so, on Tues­day, like mil­lions of oth­ers, Kha­lafalla will pull up the State De­part­ment web­site, click “Sub­mit” and learn whether luck has smiled on him.

SAL­WAN GE­ORGES/THE WASHINGTON POST

STEVE MA­CAULEY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS SAL­WAN GE­ORGES/THE WASHINGTON POST

TOP: Room­mates Tarig El­hakim, left, 22, and Ab­del­salam Kha­lafalla, 24, both of Su­dan, study last week in Arlington. El­hakim gained res­i­dency through the lot­tery. Kha­lafalla ap­plied this year. ABOVE: A 1996 photo shows im­mi­grants in line to ap­ply for the green-card lot­tery in New York.

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