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US Visa Lottery Underway Despite Uncertain Future


The United States is now accepting entries for its annual visa lottery, which has brought more than 500,000 immigrants into the country since 1995. But the lottery faces an uncertain future. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have approved a bill to eliminate funding for the program. VOA's Alex Villarreal reports from Washington.

Foreign nationals in pursuit of life in the United States can now apply online for the 2009 Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. The deadline for filing applications is December 2.

Each year, the State Department program awards 50,000 permanent residency visas, known as "green cards," through a random lottery.

The lottery was created in 1990 and designed to bring in people from nations that have not had large numbers of emigrants to the United States.

Though controversial in the United States, the visa lottery is immensely popular around the world. Last year's drawing attracted more than 6.4 million entries - the majority from Africa and Asia.

"Congress created the diversity visa program in order to expand the diversity of the immigrant population in the United States. It's designed to allow immigration from countries where there aren't traditionally a lot of immigrants to the United States," said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services, Tony Edson.

Diversity visas are distributed according to geographical region, with more going to areas with lower rates of emigration.

Natives of countries that sent more than 50,000 emigrants during the previous five years do not qualify for the program. This year's lottery has about 20 ineligible nations, including Mexico, India, China and Russia.

Applicants to the visa lottery must have either a high school diploma or at least two years work experience in a field requiring at least two years of training.

But Bryan Griffith of the Center for Immigration Studies, an independent research institute, says those requirements are not enough. "There is no guarantee that they will contribute well for society or economically. It takes a little more than a high school degree for the most be able to compete well in this country in this age," he said.

The lottery's minimal requirements also make it vulnerable to fraud.

A report by the Government Accountability Office last month uncovered widespread use of fake documents, such as marriage licenses and passports. The office also found that people posing as visa facilitators prey on lottery entrants by charging large sums of money to help them with their forms.

Critics say the program's potential for fraud poses a national security threat, opening the door for terrorists to enter the country.

In 2003, the State Department's Inspector General raised concerns that people from countries labeled state sponsors of terrorism can apply for diversity visas. About 9,800 such people have come to the United States through the program.

Edson says these concerns are being addressed. "We certainly provide extra scrutiny to applicants from countries that are designated state sponsors of terrorism, but we feel that the scrutiny we're giving to these applications, the care with which they're screened and interviewed, are adequate to ensure the integrity of the visa process and the security of our borders," he said.

Washington D.C. Immigration attorney Glen Wasserstein has worked with people who came through the diversity visa program. He says the immigrants the lottery helps are not criminals or terrorists, but ordinary people with a dream. "A lot of good people that have gotten here on the lottery had no other means to get here, so I do believe that it sort of gives the chance of the American dream to millions of people who have no other traditional chance," he said.

But they might not get the chance much longer. The House of Representatives passed a bill in June which would eliminate funding for the program. The Senate approved the same bill in September. It now goes to a conference committee of senators and representatives to work out differences. In 2005, a bill to abolish the lottery passed in the House, but did not pass in the Senate.

Diversity visa winners are only a small part of the immigrant flow. The Department of Homeland Security reports diversity visas accounted for just 3.5 percent of the more than 1.2 million green cards issued in 2006.

Most immigrants come to the United States through programs that allow entry for those with family ties, employment sponsors or refugee status.