Three years ago, in the midst of negotiations on immigration reform, then-President Donald Trump asked the notorious question why the US was accepting immigrants from “bastard” countries.
He was referring to people from African nations who often have no legal way to get to the US except through a program known as the “Diversity Visa Lottery”. Each year, approximately 55,000 people from low-immigration countries to the United States are selected through a lottery to apply for visas under the program. For many of them, it’s a golden ticket to a better life.
It wasn’t the first time the program has been targeted and misrepresented by Trump. He blamed a 2017 terrorist attack in New York for the program and vowed to end it. And he presented it as opposed to his proposal for a “performance-based” immigration system where the US would select visa applicants based on desirable labor market characteristics – defined to make the immigrant population whiter and richer.
Trump never managed to finish the program, but his administration devalued applicants compared to other immigrants. The election of President Joe Biden was intended to provide relief for applicants for a diversity visa. He had promised during the election campaign to keep the program intact and shortly after his inauguration promised to add 25,000 visas annually to the program as part of his proposed comprehensive immigration reform package.
But until well into the first year of his presidency, that did not come to fruition. Rather, the diversity visa lottery winners who applied for visas during the Covid-19 pandemic are now risking their chance to get to the US – in part because the State Department continued Trump-era policies, their applications to prioritize.
“What the Biden government did to the diversity visa program by lowering its priorities is against these campaign pledges, and we are worse off because of it,” said Rafael Urena, an American attorney responsible for the diversity visa program. Applicant represents. “We really draw from the strength of our diverse population.”
In response to a request for comment, a State Department official emailed me a statement on the condition of anonymity that the US government had the ability to review these applications and schedule the necessary interviews from the US embassies as well Consulates overseas, many of which are lagging behind due to backlogs, depend on closings and capacity limits amid the pandemic.
They have prioritized services for US citizens overseas and issued visas in urgent or emergency situations, such as people who want to help America’s response to the pandemic. Next on the priority list are immediate family members of U.S. citizens, international adoptions, and engaged couples. Diversity visa applicants are at the very bottom.
“Due to the unpredictability of the pandemic, it is impossible to predict how many [diversity visas] We will be spending this year but we want to set expectations and say that there is a very high probability that we will not spend all of the allowable allocation, ”the official said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly reduced the ministry’s capacity to process visas,” added the official. “In addition, a number of President’s proclamations restricting travel in response to the pandemic have resulted in further restrictions on visa issuance around the world.”
This means that applicants for a diversity visa could miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to the United States. The government has until September 30th to process their applications; otherwise they lose their place. And they are unlikely to win the lottery again – they have less than a 1 percent chance of being selected from more than 23 million entrants.
“It’s once in a lifetime,” said Maxwell Goodluck, a Diversity Visa Lottery winner from Ghana who applied every year for 12 years before being finally selected. “If we miss this opportunity, it will take God’s grace for it to come back,” he told me, referring to himself and the other applicants in the same position. “We don’t know what to do.”
The government’s failure to issue diversity visas has left thousands in the balance
Several lawsuits from around 25,000 Diversity Visa Lottery winners from a total of 141 countries have argued that the federal government is legally required to review the claims of people who have won the lottery and that the U.S.’s vast resources can make this possible. However, if that is not possible, they should still have the option of obtaining a visa beyond the September 30th deadline.
For Lizbeth Rosales, a Diversity Visa Lottery winner from Lima, Peru, that seems just right. “We have nothing against the country or the people of America. We only want what is fair. That’s it, ”she said. “We’re not just case numbers. We are human beings. We have feelings, we have hopes, dreams. This is our only chance for a better future. ”
The uncertainty of whether or not winners of the Diversity Visa Lottery will ever be able to travel to the United States has led many to put their plans on hold and live with constant fear.
Rosales, who also applied for diversity visas on behalf of her husband and two young children, planned to move to New Orleans, where she previously worked for a year as an intern in the hospitality industry on a student visa.
There she has friends who have encouraged her to apply for the visa lottery in the first place, and her husband, who works as a cook on a cruise ship, could also find a job. They also hoped for better educational opportunities for themselves and their 4-year-old son and their almost 1-year-old daughter.
Lizbeth Rosales and her husband Edmond Rodrigues hope to start a new life in New Orleans with their two children if their diversity visa applications are approved. Courtesy Lizbeth Rosales
Given that the pandemic hit Peru particularly hard, resulting in one of the highest per capita death rates in the world and a deep economic recession, Rosales said that moving to the US seems particularly attractive at this moment. But it’s hard to live with uncertainty. She felt sorry for other winners of the diversity visa lottery in the region in WhatsApp groups.
“For some of them, this is the only way out. This really breaks my heart because I think I am in a better position than others. God may let me experience all of this in order to better understand or appreciate my life, ”she said. “I feel affected not only for myself, but for the rest. You feel affected by other people’s suffering. This definitely creates sadness and fear as well. I wish the reality was different. “
Goodluck, the lottery winner from Ghana, says he and others have this fear. “We hardly sleep these days,” he told me. “Sometimes you can’t even concentrate. You think about it around the clock. To comfort us, we cry at the end. “
He has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and works in the IT department of the Ghanaian Ministry of Education, but says he has always wanted to pursue cybersecurity, which requires further training. He has a cousin in Colorado who has promised to help him achieve this goal if he moves to the United States.
His backup plan is to get a Masters degree in Computer Science in Ghana. To study cybersecurity, he would have to take an online course. But the fees are high and he doesn’t want to start the program without knowing if he will stay in the country.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said.
Democrats in Congress have proposed legislation to help – but it couldn’t go far enough
House Democrats have tried to resolve the plight of the 2020 and 2021 diversity visa lottery winners, but it is not clear whether they will succeed.
MP Grace Meng (D-NY) has tabled an amendment to a law granting homeland security that would allow unused 2020 and 2021 diversity visas to remain available after the fiscal year ended on September 30th . That means a portion of the 55,000 or so diversity visas for the next year would go to people who had applied in previous years.
Although the amendment was passed in the relevant House Committee, the entire bill has yet to pass a full House vote. And it has yet to be examined by the Senate, where it is likely to face opposition from GOP members.
In May, Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) also passed a law that would help the nearly 21,000 people who either received or applied for a diversity visa but were unable to enter the country due to Trump-era bans were prevented. However, it hasn’t gained traction in the months since.
But none of these bills address the long waiting times applicants for diversity visas are likely to face, even if they remain eligible beyond the September deadline. And applicants for a diversity visa from previous years would take the places away from future applicants according to Meng’s change.
“It would solve the loss of eligibility problem,” said Urena, the attorney who represents applicants for diversity visas. “But actually getting them into the country – the Biden government would have to focus its efforts on deciding on diversity visas. We look at long waiting times and basically lose eligibility for every year [new] Applicants for a diversity visa. “
Urena said the cost of waiting can be high. He had a client who won the Diversity Visa Lottery in 2020 but died while waiting for his visa to be issued. His older children had hoped to come to the US on diversity visas and start a new life, but that will not be possible now because they are no longer eligible through their father.
It’s a frustrating reality for families just trying to find a legal way into the US. “We haven’t done anything against the law. We just follow what is supposed to be obeyed, ”said Rosales. “If we are treated really fairly, we can be an asset to the country.”