Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

An unfortunate computer glitch puts the 'visa lottery' on the map

Photo by John Wardell (Netinho)/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Last week, a computer glitch dashed the hopes of tens of thousands of immigrants who had hoped to come legally to the United States - and put one of the quirkier programs within the U.S. immigration system on the map.

It's called the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, a U.S. State Department program often referred to simply as "the visa lottery." The congressionally-mandated program makes up to 55,000 immigrant visas available each year to people who apply for them via random selection, with results selected electronically. It was announced late last week that the results of the 2012 lottery would have to be scratched because of a computer programming error.

"The results were not valid because they did not represent a fair, random selection of entrants, as required by U.S. law," read an announcement on the State Department website. "If you checked this website during the first week in May and found a notice that you had been selected for further processing or a notice that you had not been selected, that notice has been rescinded and is no longer valid."

It's sad news for those who thought they were lottery winners, if good news for those who weren't. New winners will now be drawn from the existing applications.

The Diversity Visa Lottery Program program was established in 1990. The idea was to diversify the pool of immigrants coming into the country, bringing in people from underrepresented developing countries and from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. Unlike with traditional immigrant visas, for which applicants need to be sponsored then wait in line - often for many years - visa lottery applicants needn't be sponsored by a relative or employer.

The lottery allows those who can't find a way in as immigrants via the traditional routes a chance, if extremely small. The Associated Press reported that about 15 million people had applied for the program this year. From the total, about 90,000 names are selected randomly at first. Close to half are eliminated by way of attrition, interviews and other hoops applicants must jump through.

There are strict requirements, including that applicants have a high school education or its equivalent, and at least two recent years of work experience in an occupation requiring at least two years' training or experience.

While the program represents hope for millions of would-be immigrants to the U.S. each year, it has also been subject to numerous problems, including scams. Criticism of the program has included stories of new immigrants lacking a support network. Unlike those who arrive sponsored by family members or employers, many of those arriving on diversity visas land here without a network of relatives, friends or colleagues, and find themselves in for a hard time adjusting.

In 2008, a report from the Migration Policy Institute found these immigrants faring worse than those who came on family-sponsored visas in the integration process:

As expected, immigrants whose admission was based on an employment offer saw little change in the quality of their job abroad and their first US job and then little change going forward in the United States. For all other admission categories, however, there was a decline following migration and a subsequent rise in job quality.

The decline was deeper for refugees and diversity immigrants than for family migrants, who often can count on relatives to assist in the integration process. Moreover, the improvement experienced with time spent in the United States did not bring nonemployment-based immigrants back to the same level of work as their last job prior to migration.

And again, refugees and diversity immigrants fared worse than family migrants.

But for those thought they had won the lottery this year, the news is heartbreaking. One young hopeful immigrant from Germany told the Associated Press:
"It's like you won $100,000, and then they just take it away from you and it's gone," said Max, who would give only his first name for fear that full identification might jeopardize his chances in future applications.

The State Department has posted a list of questions and answers for applicants.