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Green Card Hopefuls See American Dreams Shattered By Computer Glitch

  • Nikola Krastev

NEW YORK -- On May 1, Ilya Smirnov learned that he was one of the lucky ones.

The 26-year-old Siberian native was residing in the United States on a temporary visa and had applied to the State Department's Diversity Lottery, a program that each year provides up to 50,000 applicants the opportunity to settle in the United States and receive a Green Card.

Russian Ilya Smirnov and his Ukrainian wife, Olga Leonova
When he learned that he had been selected, Smirnov says, he and his 20-year-old Ukrainian wife, Olga Leonova, could not believe their good fortune.

"We were wild with joy. We didn't sleep all night," Smirnov says. "The next morning, I went to work red-eyed but megahappy. My wife did the same. We were so happy, [we] couldn't sleep for two nights."

Smirnov had always dreamed of settling in America. He called his mother in Russia and told her to sell his car and put his Moscow apartment on the market. But his joy was short-lived.

Two weeks later, the following message appeared on the State Department's website: "We regret to inform you that because of a computer programming error...the results of the 2012 Diversity Lottery (DV2012) have been voided."

Smirnov was not alone. He was one of 22,000 people who'd been informed that they won a Green Card only to find out that the notification was the result of a computer glitch. They include a civil servant in Moscow, a lawyer in rural Ukraine, an aspiring technician in Africa, a Harvard graduate from Bulgaria, and a teacher from Uzbekistan.

Smirnov is the main plaintiff in a potential class-action lawsuit initiated in a federal court in Washington on June 16 against the State Department on behalf of voided Diversity Lottery applicants. Along with 35 other plaintiffs, Smirnov is seeking reinstatement of their "selectee" status and prompt processing of their applications.

"There are 36 named plaintiffs from 20 different countries," says Kenneth White, an attorney handling the lawsuit. If the court grants the case "class-action" status, he says, tens of thousands of others become parties to the suit.

Kenneth White is the lawyer representing the 36 plaintiffs.
The State Department, which plans to hold a new lottery on July 15, declined to comment other than to say it is "investigating" what happened.

White says he has filed for an injunction against the new lottery "to assure that the interests of the Class of 22,000 are protected." He is seeking to "accelerate the hearing of our arguments in court."

In addition to the emotional rollercoaster, some of those affected say the incident has disrupted their lives. Smirnov managed to take his Moscow apartment off the market, but he claims to have sold his car at a considerable discount.

Irina Voropaeva, a 33-year-old civil servant from Moscow who visited the U.S. West Coast and "completely" fell in love with the country, says she was "giggling" and "swept by a wave of happiness" when she learned that she was selected for a Green Card.

Now, since finding out about the annulled results "on the evening of Friday, May 13," Voropaeva says she worries she won't even be able to get a tourist visa.

Irina Voropaeva (right) and her family learned of the glitch on Friday the 13th.

"It was a shock," Voropaeva says. "I took sick leave from work because I can't think of anything else. Sometimes I cry because I don't know how all this is going to end; I am afraid that it may end up even worse for us. By filing the application forms, we disclosed our intention to immigrate and now we probably wouldn't qualify anymore even for a tourist visa."

To qualify for a U.S. non-immigrant visa, an applicant must demonstrate that he or she does not intend to immigrate. If consular officials determine that an applicant is an immigration risk, that constitutes grounds for denial.

White argues that by notifying the selectees on May 1, the State Department actually entered into contractual agreement with them that it must honor.

"As you know, there is a lottery fee, there's an immigrant visa fee, there's travel expenses that he has to pay, there's courier expenses, medical exam, and obviously moving to the United States," White says. "So when the Department of State is saying, 'Well, people shouldn't be doing anything radical in preparing to move to the United States,' well, some of it was necessary as soon as you found out that you won."

Some of those affected have taken their case to social media.

Anna Guniya became a system administrator for the related Facebook community page '22 Thousand Tears.'
Anna Guniya, a 23-year-old native of Abkhazia who lives in Moscow, is the administrator of the Facebook group 22 Thousand Tears. She says setting things right is simply a matter of fairness and honor.

"Immediately I thought about Facebook and other social networks," Guniya says. "I found this group on Facebook on the first day it was created by some guy from Germany. He saw that I actively write and comment on it and offered me to become a system administrator. So from that moment on I have become a system administrator and we are perpetually busy. We are constantly on the phone calling the politicians, [U.S. Senate] committees, reaching all imaginable media outlets in Europe and the U.S., I spent the whole day calling everybody everywhere."

Not all of the voided selectees are so upset. Iva Zafirova, a Harvard graduate from Bulgaria who has lived in the United States for the last 10 years, says that although she's disappointed and has decided to participate in the lawsuit, she is already on track for a Green Card in two years through an employer-sponsorship program.

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