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Has The U.S. Green Card Lottery Run Out Of Luck?

An immigrant looks toward New York's Statue of Liberty during a march for immigration reform in April.
An immigrant looks toward New York's Statue of Liberty during a march for immigration reform in April.
WASHINGTON -- Each year around this time, millions of would-be immigrants to the United States from around the world hold their breath. Early May is when the U.S. State Department releases its shortlist of applicants to the annual green-card lottery. About half of them -- 55,000 people -- will receive permanent-residence visas, the tickets to eventual citizenship.

This year, like any other, Internet forums on U.S. immigration, such as the Russian-language "Govorim Pro Ameriku" (Talking About America), are abuzz with posts from lottery hopefuls. The program has received well over 10 million applicants from the former Soviet Union since its inception.

Some express joy at making the first cut, while those not chosen consider trying their luck next year.

This time, however, there may not be a next year. The forums are abuzz about that possibility, too.

The green-card lottery, officially known as the Diversity Visa Program, has become collateral in deal-making between Democrat and Republican lawmakers as they attempt a massive overhaul of the U.S. immigration system.

Charles Schumer (Democrat-New York) is a member of the "Gang of Eight," the group of U.S. senators who wrote the nearly 1,000-page immigration-reform legislation now being considered in Congress. Last month he said fellow Democrats had agreed to scrap the lottery on the grounds of both politics and substance.

"I was the author of [the Diversity Visa Program], so I care about it," Schumer said. "We had strong opposition from both our Republican colleagues in our Gang of Eight and we heard that for House [of Representatives] Republicans it was a nonstarter. [The program] was an effort to bring in people from Europe and Africa and it was successful for a while, but now it has actually shifted. [Some of] the highest numbers [of applicants] are from Central Asia. Given that and the opposition of our colleagues, we decided we couldn't continue [the program]."

Bargaining Chip

Since 1995, the green-card lottery has aimed to diversify the stream of immigrants entering the United States. While the program randomly selects applicants from countries with lower recent rates of immigration, it was intended to focus on African countries, Ireland, and some others. Africans continue to make up the majority of the green-card winners, but Central Asians are now the second-most admitted group. The program has also seen a surge in applicants from countries such as Bangladesh and Iran.

The lottery has also taken a public-relations hit in recent years with the proliferation of fraudulent websites that pose as the U.S. government and trick applicants into sending money.

Republicans have long targeted the lottery for potential elimination, most recently with a bill in December. That stand-alone measure was stopped in the Democratically-led Senate.

"Now we've got this very large, comprehensive bill in which there are a number of big things the Democrats want, including the legalization of roughly 11 million people who are without status in the United States right now," Edward Alden, an expert on immigration at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says of the Democrats' recalculation. "The Democrats have accepted [scrapping the green-card lottery] as part of the larger bargain that they believe is necessary to get the immigration-reform bill through."

As it currently stands, the bill would put the lottery's visas toward a new system that stresses skills and education for legal immigration.

Some analysts say the chance for a bipartisan agreement is the best it has been in decades. President Barack Obama, who enjoyed strong support from the country's increasingly influential Hispanic population in the 2012 presidential election, has made overhauling the system a priority for his second term. Republicans fared poorly among Hispanic voters, leading to calls from within the party to adjust to the country's changing demographics.

The Senate Judiciary Committee this month resumed consideration of hundreds of proposed changes to the reform bill. Alden says he suspects an amendment could be introduced calling for the lottery to be reinstated but suspects the effort would not be successful.

He also notes that there aren't "powerful political defenders of the lottery" at a time when advocacy groups for Hispanic-Americans, technology industry lobbyists, and others are fighting for their own interests.

The U.S. Congress could vote on the reform package in June.

Going, Going, Gone...

Meanwhile, many past winners of the lottery oppose the possible change.

Azerbaijan-born Ismail Shahtakhtinski won the green-card lottery in 1999. He is now an immigration lawyer, working mainly with clients from the ex-U.S.S.R. He says he has heard from many of them inquiring about the status of the lottery and believes eliminating it would tarnish America's image abroad.

"I think it will make America more isolationist -- more isolated from the rest of the world," Shahtakhtinski says. "I think [the lottery] was great for America and the reason is that it was basically saying to [the] world: 'We would let anyone who wants to emigrate here emigrate here. It's just that logistically, we cannot accept everyone, and that's why there is a lottery.' But the message there is that America is open for anyone who strives to come to the free world and achieve their American dream. Unfortunately, if they accept the proposal that's going to be gone."

Anna Demidchik, who was born in Soviet Kazakhstan, made the preliminary cut in the latest green-card lottery. As a law-school student in New York, she had applied several times in recent years. She was even declared a winner in 2011, before the State Department invalidated the results following a computer glitch.

She says she supports doing away with the lottery if it's part of a successful fix to the system. But she concedes she didn't think that this year might be her last chance to apply.

"There have been attempts to eliminate the diversity lottery and so far they've all failed," Demidchik says. "So I'm really not sure this is the time when it's going to happen. If it is, well, I'm certainly glad I got in. Absolutely."

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