Soured Serendipity for 22,000 Visa Winners

by by Malcolm Burnley

One spin of luck made Ellen a shoo-in for citizenship, she believed.  But her serendipity, seemingly issued by the American government, proved no better than a fortune cookie - a fragile, paper-thin promise at best.

On May 13, Ellen's immigration status took a U-turn, effectively ending a game of hide-and-go-seek with the US Department of State. Ellen and 22,000 other hopeful immigrants, after winning the Diversity Visa Lottery, had their green cards revoked when the government threw out its own lottery results.  An inadvertent technical blunder sent tens of thousands of new arrivals into immigration exile.  A “computer error,” had affected the randomization process of this year’s running, giving early-applicants like Ellen an unexpected advantage in the mathematical algorithm.  It went unchecked while applications rolled in, as the ping-pong balls bounced, and 22,000 would-be winners were notified of their selections.

Faith to Despair
May 1 had brought the American dream tantalizingly closer. Ellen awoke from a fitful, frazzled sleep after months of anticipation, and beamed her bloodshot eyes at a computer screen.  There, on the Department of State’s website, was an official government letter with an agency seal at its crest, naming her as a winner of the 2012 Diversity Visa Lottery.

Overwhelming elation flowed over Ellen, drawn from the near-assurance of a green card. After winning, she phoned 5,000 miles away to a rural farmhouse in Missouri, sitting on three acres of hay fields and wooded terrain.  That is where Jean lives, Ellen’s same-sex American partner.  For three years they’ve lived in separate hemispheres, united exclusively online, Ellen in Eastern Europe and Jean in her A-frame, alfalfa-country farmhouse.

They’ve maintained a loving, long-distance intimacy through all-night Skype sessions and the sharing of Youtube selections.  They’ve even wed, unofficial, over the web.  With Jean dressed by daylight, and Ellen enveloped in nighttime, they slipped rings onto their own fingers in an overseas exchange of vows, a symbolic placeholder until an official ceremony could take place once Ellen immigrated to the US.

The lottery awakened Ellen’s imagination for long-deferred wedding plans−a modest ceremony in scenic Iowa, the sole state permitting same-sex marriage in the tradition-oriented Grain Belt, and conveniently close to Jean. “Something very plain, not official, nothing that makes you feel obliged to be in a certain attire,” Ellen fantasized.

Jean’s property is a sheltered paradise of persimmon and apple trees, sunken with snow in the winter, and buzzing with locusts in summer.  “I wish I could sit at that table with her, in all that quiet, with all that wind and leaves whispering and chimes ringing, just holding her hand,” Ellen said, speaking by phone from Eastern Europe.  She requested not to disclose her country of origin or real last name for this article because she holds out slender hopes of obtaining a green card in the future, and fears being blacklisted from the immigration system, or facing backlash for her sexual orientation, if named.

After receiving word from the State Department, Ellen left a gasping, hyperventilating message on May 1, a voicemail that is still fossilized on Jean’s machine. “It's too painful to listen to it now,” Jean says.

On May 13, an announcement from the Kentucky Consular Center, the branch of the Department of State responsible for the lottery, confirmed a rumor that had been circulating in internet forums for days: the results were to be deemed invalid.

“I can not begin to express how much pain, sorrow, angst, and even anger I have experienced as a result of this error,” Jean says.  “It doesn’t seem right that any number of people would be told they were winners, only to find out it was a joke.”

The Diversity Visa lottery is a lesser-known, nearly-invisible corner of US immigration, but an avenue nonetheless allowing 55,000 green cards per year.  Despite its poverty of slots to give, the program draws millions of foreigners each year, creating a modern day logjam akin to Ellis Island of old, but transpiring online.

This improbable crapshoot was Ellen’s best chance to rejoin Jean.  She was plucked from 19 million applicants to win a coveted spot, and stood inches away from a permanent visa - momentarily, for twelve days.

Jean and Ellen continue to live apart, in idleness. “My life is very stressful here,” Ellen says, breaking into tears when describing her prolonged isolation in the former Soviet Union. “But no matter the hardships that I’d have to endure in the US, it would be nothing compared to this, because I would have her near me.”

Fairness or Fiasco?
“These poor buggers who got the letter?  Suck it up and get over it, as far as I’m concerned,” Carl Krueger says, an immigration attorney based in Providence, Rhode Island.  “I hope you didn’t pack your bags, and sell your house, and quit your job, just because you got that letter.”

Of the approximately one million green cards issued in the US each year, the Diversity Visa lottery produces a mere 55,000, with the rest given to asylum-seekers and family members of current citizens. “It’s a drop in the bucket,” Krueger says, who works for the International Institute of Rhode Island, a 90-year-old non-profit, non-government agency, and the largest provider of immigration services in the state.

Most Diversity Visa applicants hail from abroad, but Krueger hears a gamut of inquiries about it during consultations with illegal and temporary immigrants here.  Krueger, a three-decade veteran of immigration law, was frank and non-partisan in his analysis of the 2012 lottery.  “Even if you’re selected, you haven’t won anything. You’re only on to step two.”

One-hundred-thousand winners reach that plateau (what began on May 1 for this year’s contest), then are ranked by the Department of State to determine what order they will proceed with government screening.  A trifecta of requirements slims the field incrementally, from 100,000 to 55,000 over the course of twelve months, by weeding out anyone who fails to satisfy a prerequisite: English literacy, an advanced education level (typically 12 years of schooling or a high school equivalency), and two-years of work experience in a skilled trade.

Such stringent requirements are not asked of non-lottery immigrants, who are not even required to speak English as long as they have a family connection.  Krueger acknowledges that bureaucratic inconsistencies like these, diminish the level of equality within the American immigration system, but he finds no fault with the State Department’s decision to schedule a re-draw with this year’s results.

A veil of fairness, for Krueger, was forfeited once the lottery’s randomization was found inept, and rescinding the visas became the lesser of two evils.  “They didn’t do the selection the way they were supposed to do it.  But millions more people would have gotten screwed, compared to thousands who are aggrieved.”

However, for 2012 selectees who had a particularly low number in the second stage of screening, a green card was all but assured. Such was the case for Ellen.

“Maybe I should be more sympathetic,” Krueger says. “We’re still scratching our heads at how this fiasco unfolded.”

Tears of Protest
“Most US people think we are illegals, or cheap labor.  Or stupid or something,” Anny Gunya says, an online organizer for the ex-winners, speaking by phone from Moscow in fluent English, hardly exhibiting her native Georgian accent.

“For me, America was always the country for liberty.  Where justice always prevailed…But it was all just good P.R.”

Gunya graduated from Moscow University with a degree in marketing last year, and harmonized about the Diversity Visa lottery as a launching pad for an advertising career in New York.  Like a gift-wrapped ticket to live abroad, she received a low lottery number on May 1, then proceeded to quit her job, research the TOEFL exams, and prepare to apply for graduate school in the states.

Heart-set on immigrating, Gunya turned down an enticing job offer from an American beer company’s Russian subsidiary, which dangled a luxury signing bonus in front of her - an all-expense vacation to Manhattan.  But Gunya sought New York as a permanent destination, and closed her lips to short-term corporate cherries.

Sweet dreams turned suddenly sour on May 13.  “I didn’t want to cry, I was just so shocked that I couldn’t speak.”

Over the next two months, Gunya assembled an online artillery to refute the State Department’s broken promises.  She maintained a twitter account - 22,000 Hopefuls, @GreenCard2012 - and monitored a Facebook group - 22,000 Tears - dedicated full time to publicizing their misfortune and advocating for reparations.

Eventually, the ex-winners drew the interest of Kenneth White, an immigration lawyer who agreed to argue their case in court.  Thirty-six signed as plaintiffs to sue the Department of State in Federal District Court in Washington. But after hearing arguments, on July 14th, federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson dismissed their appeal, arguing along the lines of Krueger’s rationale, stating in her opinion that because the lottery “did not comply with the law,” voiding the results was the only logical option.  Otherwise, Judge Jackson stated, “the Court in all likelihood would now be facing a similar argument of the other 19 million…”.

The judge’s decision, coupled with a re-drawing on July 15, effectively expunged the claims of the original winners, almost none of which were re-selected, including Ellen.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if things like these would be happening in a third world country,” Ellen says.

Wedding Chimes
A slew of obstacles await Ellen if she is to salvage any chance of obtaining a green card, and rejoining Jean.  Vivid memories of Missourian plains still occupy her day-to-day thoughts, sticking stubbornly to her mind like peanut butter, though the possibility of a picturesque wedding has begun to melt away.

Across the street from her apartment in Europe, lies a Christian Orthodox Church, housed in Roman architecture.  A commotion erupts there each weekend. The cobblestone cul de sac clutters with bridesmaids, caravans of cars honk in celebration, and crowds of relatives sing a wedding chorus which torments Ellen’s ears.  The merriment is a repetitive soundtrack to a distant dream, now squandered, of Ellen at an American altar, beside Jean.

A three-pronged blockade - pre-existing legislation, the lottery fiasco, and a new  bill circulating in Congress - has diminished Ellen’s ability to immigrate.

Before the 2012 lottery, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), limited her avenues.  Among other controversial aspects, the law prevents same-sex, bi-national couples from pursuing family re-unification green cards, leaving her no direct route to citizenship, and only a piecemeal of temporary, insufficient alternatives.

“If I apply for an asylum visa, that means I will never be able to come back and see my family,” Ellen says, which would restrict her from returning to Europe, where she cares for two diabetic parents.

And after her winning ticket was revoked, Ellen’s odds constricted further.  Believing that she’d won, she sent in documentation paperwork to the Department of State, showing “immigration intent,” which jeopardizes her opportunity to apply for a student, worker, or temporary visa in the future.

Now, a bill that just cleared the House Judiciary Committee, if enacted into law, will push Ellen’s immigration status from endangered to extinct.  H.R. 704, or the Security and Fairness Enhancement Act (SAFE), would abolish the Diversity Visa lottery permanently, shutting off any future opportunity for Ellen, or any of the 2012 lottery winners, to roll the dice again.

“Basing our immigration system on the luck of the draw is not smart immigration policy.  It’s an open invitation for fraud and a jackpot for terrorists,“ Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R.-Texas, said during a hearing on the bill, who has tried to encompass the lottery within broader anti-immigration rhetoric, merging it with illegal immigration concerns.

But while Republican politicians - 22 of the 39 co-sponsors of the bill are conservatives from the immigration hotbeds of CA, TX, VA, NC, and FL - are using the Diversity Lottery to score political points, their argument relies on bias more than reality.

“It’s a publicity stunt and utter bull-shit,” Krueger says, who dismisses the bill as political grandstanding by lawmakers attempting to invigorate border-state constituencies. “Seventy-five percent (of legal immigrants) coming into the US, are from 12 countries,” Krueger explains, professing the importance of the Diversity Visa lottery to balance out the immigrant population.

But the US government’s antiquated definition of partnership disregards Ellen and Jean. “I love my wife, and I don’t think it is anyone's right, through law or regulations, who I have a right to love.  I’m not letting any politician do that.  I love who I love.”

After reckoning with the agency’s abrupt about-face, Ellen got a package from Jean on May 14, postmarked a day after the winning announcement, an outdated congratulations intended to be a welcoming gift from America.  “When I opened it, there were keys to our home (in Missouri). Needless to say, I couldn’t stop crying.”

“The immigration system is broken in the US.  There are thousand of illegals, and we wanted to do it legally,” Ellen says.  22,000 Diversity Visa winners placed trust in the government’s word, built blueprints to American lives, then saw them shattered like sandcastles.

Any form of reparation for the ex-winners appears unlikely, but Ellen reels at her lost faith in the US government, feeling forever severed. “Just a month ago, they executed a Mexican citizen.  Why would they care for us?”

MALCOLM BURNLEY B'12: believes in fortune cookies.