Millions of prospective immigrants around the world apply for a shot at a green card through the annual diversity visa lottery. Some apply year after year in hopes of getting to the U.S.
But this year, the pandemic threw a wrench into the processing of those visas, and then, the Trump administration stopped issuing diversity visas altogether.
For five years in a row, Katia Karslidi had put her application into the lottery. Finally, her persistence paid off. She was selected this year.
"It’s like a dream come true because it's such a small odds," she said.
The writer and LGBTQ activist from Russia was on target to complete the vetting process and get her green card by the Sept. 30 deadline. She was even reaching out to prospective employers in New York last month when she sent an email to a U.S. consular office, asking for an update.
"They send me, like, automatic reply," she explained, before reading the email aloud: " 'Thank you for your inquiry. Due to novel COVID-19 outbreak all interviews in the diversity visa program have been suspended. It is undetermined when scheduling will resume.' And that's basically it."
Karslidi was not alone.
Of the 55,000 lottery winners, about 42,000 were not able to complete the process, which includes consular interviews and background checks.
Now that the program was essentially shut down, they’re all out of luck. Applicants like Karslidi said they're doubly incredulous — both about being selected out of millions and then about losing their spot.
"This is not only our chance to live in a better country, it's America's chance to have a lot of talented people from around the world to benefit country. And Trump [is] just taking away this opportunity," she said.
President Trump made it clear he opposes the diversity visa program, often mocking it at campaign rallies.
“Think of this, do you think they’re going to put their great citizens — they have great citizens, they have great people like we have great people — do you think those people are going into a lottery? No,” Trump said to a cheering Cincinnati crowd in 2019.
This year, the program slowed to a crawl when U.S. consulates and embassies closed because of the pandemic. Then, Trump dealt another blow, banning diversity visas and many foreign-worker visas from being issued. Last month, he extended that ban through the end of the year. Trump says he’s trying to preserve American jobs.
But, Danilo Zak, a policy associate at the National Immigration Forum, says Trump is using coronavirus as an excuse.
"I think absolutely this is an example of the administration using the pandemic in a way to further goals that he's had a long time related to the elimination of the diversity visa program," Zak said.
The diversity visa program is designed to attract immigrants from countries traditionally underrepresented in the U.S. Applicants must meet educational requirements and can’t have criminal records. Once they're here, Zak said, these immigrants tend to find success.
There are some for whom winning the diversity visa is a lifelong dream. They apply for the lottery every year, often spending thousands of dollars on fees, travel expenses to and from consular interviews and medical appointments. For most, it's their only shot at legally immigrating to the U.S.
"They finally won, they've gone through, in many cases, the beginning of the process or the middle of the process of interviews and the vetting," Zak said, "and then with the pandemic and then the subsequent proclamations, they're just completely left out of luck and they won't have any opportunity to use that green card or access it."
Mahmoud, an Egyptian accountant who grew up in the United Arab Emirates, has applied every year for 15 years. This year, he finally saw his name on the winner's list. He was hoping to bring his family to Boston, after living and working in the city for a short time on a different temporary visa.
"So the reason I'm chasing this dream, I don't think it's just me, it's like everybody around the world is applying for the program because they believe the U.S. is the greatest nation," Mahmoud said. (We agreed to only use his middle name because he doesn’t want to hurt his chances if the situation changes. )
Some immigrant advocates are calling on Congress to extend the diversity visa processing deadline. They’re also suing to overturn Trump’s temporary ban on these visas.
"We thought it’s going to be a temporary problem but it turned out to be that, you know, based on the current situation right now, this opportunity is gone forever," Mahmoud said.
As it is now, Mahmoud's only choice would be to put his name in the lottery again next year.
But he says that’s unlikely. He can’t take the disappointment again.