A security guard stands guard behind fences around the US Embassy in Beijing on Sept. 6, 2021.

‘We all keep our lives on hold’: Thousands wait for diversity visas to go through amid pandemic, other delays 

The Trump administration stopped processing green card lottery visas. This year, the Biden administration restarted the program. But it hasn’t been a priority, immigration experts say.

The World

A security guard stands guard behind fences around the US Embassy in Beijing on Sept. 6, 2021. The Chinese government says at least 500 Chinese students have been rejected under a policy issued last year by then US President Donald Trump that is aimed at blocking Beijing from obtaining US technology with possible military uses.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File photo

Nil Kutluk had a plan during the early months of 2020.

The marketing professional thought she’d leave Turkey, her home country, and move to the US where she dreamed of working. All she needed was an interview at the US Embassy for her visa.

“Everything was going normally, and my expectation was that my number would be turned around by May and then I would have an interview around June or July, [at] the latest,” she said.

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Kutluk is part of a small group from all over the world randomly chosen for a chance to apply for a US green card. It’s called the Diversity Immigrant Visa (DV) Program — or green card lottery — and only 55,000 visas are given out each year. Kutluk was among the group chosen to apply for a visa for fiscal year 2020.

But then the pandemic hit “and then everything stopped,” Kutluk said. “We thought it was just for a month at the beginning, or a couple of months; we thought things would go back to normal.”

The Trump administration decided to stop processing the green card lottery visas. Federal officials said that would keep immigrants from taking jobs in the US during the pandemic. It left thousands of diversity visa winners like Kutluk in limbo. In the end, she lost her chance at a green card.

This year, the Biden administration restarted the program. But putting the visa applications through hasn’t been a priority. The pandemic complicated things: Embassies around the world were short-staffed, and applications piled up. So, thousands in the next round of lottery winners this year missed their chance at getting visas, too.

“I believe over the last two years, it’s [the Diversity Immigrant Visa program] not working as intended. It's not bringing in the full amount of people to really increase the diversity of the United States of America.”

 Rafael Ureña, an immigration lawyer in New York and California

“I believe over the last two years, it’s [the Diversity Immigrant Visa program] not working as intended. It's not bringing in the full amount of people to really increase the diversity of the United States of America,” said Rafael Ureña, an immigration lawyer who practices in New York and California.

He said the Diversity Immigrant Visa program has never been managed in this way.

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Similar systems have existed in the past — one of its first iterations was meant to increase legal migration for Irish immigrants in the late 1980s. The modern diversity program was signed into law by Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1990, with bipartisan support.

“At that time, both parties believed that there was a richness that would be brought to the United States by a diverse population,” Ureña said.

Today, most of the people who enter the visa lottery are from several countries in Africa and Eastern Europe — places where getting a US visa can be very tough.

Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, said the Biden administration shouldn’t leave diversity visa winners in this situation. But those winners are not alone, as there’s a massive visa backlog overall with millions of people waiting, she said.

“The State Department could choose to prioritize the diversity visa, but that would come at the cost of other types of applicants, family-based or employment-based applicants. And those tradeoffs are really difficult.”

Ureña said he believes additional funding for the State Department, the federal agency that processes these visas, is a solution to the backlogs.

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“If we really want to have a functioning immigration system, we need to focus on the immigrant visa backlog and the funding for consular officers and embassies abroad to process those applications.”

 Rafael Ureña, an immigration lawyer in New York and California

“If we really want to have a functioning immigration system,” we need to focus on the immigrant visa backlog and the funding for consular officers and embassies abroad to process those applications,” Ureña said.

Meanwhile, Ureña and a legal team are representing thousands of lottery winners who were left waiting for a consular interview due to processing delays in 2020 and 2021.  The cases have made it to federal courts.

“And those courts have found that the failure to process diversity visa applications was unlawful and have ordered the State Department to preserve those visas for future processing,” Ureña said.

But only a few thousand visas will be set aside for these applicants, and there are more applicants than visas available.

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The State Department didn’t grant an interview, but in an email, a spokesperson said officials are trying their best to address the delays and the court's orders. The spokesperson also stressed that winning the green card lottery doesn’t guarantee anyone a visa — it just gives them a chance to apply for one.

Kutluk from Turkey is still waiting to hear from US officials and is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits. She said the situation is frustrating: “We all keep our lives on hold, so I finally decided that there's no such thing [as a Diversity Immigrant Visa]  and continue on with my other options.”

She just left Turkey and moved to England, her plan B. She’ll stay there and start a consulting business, she said.

But just in case she’s able to beat the odds again, Kutluk plans to submit her name for the next green card lottery, which opened last week, and keep waiting.

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