As the U.S. government officially opens its diversity visa lottery program at the start of a new fiscal year, thousands of past winners from Afghanistan, Egypt, Peru, Iran and other nations continue to endure processing delays that are dimming hopes of a new life in America.
The Biden administration announced Wednesday that registration for the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program for 2023 — popularly known as green card lottery — had begun. Congress authorized 55,000 green cards per year for immigrants around the world to promote diversity in the U.S.
Registration starts well before any given fiscal year — in this case, 2023 — to allow time for processing applications. But delays have become chronic and spawned legal action.
While accepting new applications, U.S. officials acknowledge a severe backlog in processing existing ones, many of which were filed during the former Trump administration and have been slowed by the pandemic.
For people like Samar, a 35-year-old historian from Egypt and a 2021 diversity visa winner, the window for getting authorization to travel to the U.S. is closing. An outspoken critic of human rights violations in her home country, she asked VOA not to reveal her last name.
"My fiscal year (deadline) ended on September 30, 2021. (The U.S. government) has not replied to the majority of my inquiries about my (diversity visa) case," Samar said. "This immigration opportunity is not a luxury for my family. … My family and I have experienced police harassment since 2016. … This immigration opportunity will help me and my family start a humane and safe life."
Visa eligibility does not transfer to the following year. The entire process must be completed in a year. With time running out, the mother of three decided to join other diversity visa winners in a lawsuit against the U.S. government in hopes of getting travel documents.
In an email to VOA, a State Department spokesperson said, "Being randomly chosen as a selectee does not guarantee that you will receive a visa or a visa interview. Selection merely means that the person is eligible to participate in the DV program."
The explanation is of little comfort to Samar.
"My husband and I have been applying for (diversity visas) since 2000. We have three kids. We followed all procedures and submitted all required forms and documents," she said. "We even tried to leave for the EU but couldn't get a visa."
The diversity visa program has had bumpy years of late.
In 2017, then-President Donald Trump announced a series of actions that blocked people from Muslim-majority countries from coming to the United States.
Then, in March 2020, Trump shut down consulates around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic. His administration subsequently announced a ban on certain immigrant visas, arguing it was needed to protect the American economy.
As a result, thousands of winners of the visa lottery were blocked from coming to the United States.
According to federal documents, once consulates began to reopen in the summer of 2020, officials were ordered to process diversity visas last.
Immigrant advocates sued. Last month, a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to resume processing lottery visa winners. Last week, U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta in Washington issued an order setting aside about 7,000 visas for diversity lottery winners.
In court documents, U.S. officials said delays stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic, an argument that did not sway the judge.
"Some of that shortfall is no doubt due to the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic is not the primary culprit," Mehta said in his ruling. He added that a significant cause of processing delays is "the State Department's complete cessation of adjudicating diversity visa applications for five months and its unlawful deprioritizing of those applications when adjudications resumed."
While the State Department declined to comment on ongoing litigation, the agency said, "We are committed to reducing the backlog of immigrant visa applicants waiting to schedule appointments at their U.S. embassy or consulate, while keeping our staff and applicants safe. Applicants should monitor the website of the relevant embassy or consulate for updates."
US embassies swamped
According to immigration lawyers representing diversity visa winners, U.S. embassies have thousands of cases to process and are interviewing about 10 diversity visa cases a month.
"And it's so heartbreaking and frustrating for these people, because they've been in limbo for two years to get here," immigration lawyer Curtis Morrison told VOA.
Morrison said winners experiencing current delays have a roughly 1-in-3 chance of finishing the process and immigrating to the U.S.
"We're going to ask for more visas ... but we can't guarantee that the judge is going to go along with our ask," he said, referencing ongoing litigation.
Samar received news in 2020 that she had won a spot in the diversity visa program. She was tapped from among the millions of people around the world who enter the lottery each year.
She told VOA she sent all required paperwork and has been waiting for an interview at an American consulate.
But the last part of this process has yet to take place.
Samar said she could apply for the 2023 program, but the odds of winning the lottery twice in a row are small.
"Which means that my immigration to the U.S. is impossible at the current pace," she said.
VOA's Cindy Spang contributed to this report.