U.S. Plans Lottery With Jackpot of Legal Residency : Immigration: Officials brace for deluge of applicants for 40,000 visas. Critics say the process favors Europeans.


Welcome to America, immigrants--land of the free, home of the brave, and now, haven of the very lucky.

In one of the quirkier programs to emerge from Congress, thousands of immigrants will be granted legal residency in the United States through a lottery that is expected to take place this fall.

Over a brief filing period, proposed for only one week, millions of applicants will flood the State Department in a postal deluge, marking the start of the first permanent immigration program based solely on luck.


Out of the mountain of applications, the department will select 40,000 winners, who will be allowed to immigrate into the United States along with their spouses and dependents.

“It’s a little bit of an unusual idea,” said Taka Suzuki, a 27-year-old language school director in Japan who applied for the lottery in August, “but for the person who wants to live in the United States, it’s a real good chance.”

The program was created by Congress last year with the purpose of diversifying the flow of immigrants, which over the past three decades has become dominated by Asian and Latin American immigrants.

In the first phase of the lottery, which is to last three years, visas will be restricted to residents of 34 countries--mostly in Europe--who have been adversely affected by the current immigration policy, which favors foreigners with immediate relatives in the United States.

In the final, permanent phase, starting in 1994, the number of visas will increase to 55,000 and residents from most countries in the world will be eligible--with the probable exception of those from high-admission nations, such as Mexico, China, El Salvador and Haiti.

Some immigrant rights activists have raised concerns about the program, saying that at least in the initial phase, its favoritism to Europeans is tinged with racism.

“Very clearly the emphasis is on white immigration,” said Madeline Janis, executive director of the Central American Refugee Center in Los Angeles.

Some conservatives have said the program makes about as much sense as using dice to determine tax credits.

“No country has anything as stupid or arbitrary as this,” said Dan Stein, executive director of the conservative, Washington, D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform. “You’d be better off auctioning visas.”

But the complaints have been drowned out by the cheers of prospective immigrants--especially the Irish, who through the prodding of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) have been guaranteed at least 40% of the total for the first three years.

“It’s great,” said Claire, a 23-year-old waitress from Ireland who has been living illegally in New York City since 1987. “I’m definitely applying. I mean you can’t lose. I have my letters ready and I’m ready to go.”

If the past is any indicator, Claire--who asked that her last name not be used--probably will be one of millions applying for the upcoming lottery.

Before this permanent program, there have been two others, both conducted on a temporary basis, that provided far fewer visas.

The first was held in 1987 and drew 1.4 million applications over a one-week period. Five thousand visas were granted, followed by another 35,000 after the program, known as NP-5, was extended three years.

Congress followed up with another program in 1988, called OP-1, providing 10,000 more visas a year. During the one-month filing period, 3.2 million applications were received.

This time, postal officials are bracing for another onslaught. “With the amount of visas available, we are expecting millions of applications,” said Jack Potter, the postal official in charge of coordinating the effort.

The application process is so simple that many attorneys are recommending that applicants do it themselves, although that has not stopped thousands from seeking legal help.

To assist prospective immigrants, the State Department has set up a special lottery “hot line” in Washington to provide the latest information on the contest.

“Anyone who can read, write and follow instructions should be able to handle this,” said one Los Angeles attorney who is charging $250 to submit an application.

The final rules governing the lottery are expected to be announced today in Washington, although the general outline of the program already is known. The basic requirements are only that applicants be born in one of the eligible countries and, in a departure from previous lotteries, have a firm, one-year job offer from a U.S. employer.

There is no official application form or filing fee. Applicants need only submit a letter stating their name, mailing address, date and place of birth, names of their spouse and unmarried dependents under the age of 21, and the location of a U.S. consular office in their native country where they can be interviewed.

To increase their chances, applicants can file hundreds or even thousands of times during the one-week application period. “Xerox it as many times as you want,” said one State Department spokesman. “You don’t even have to sign it.”

Winners will theoretically be chosen on a first-come, first-served basis. But because so many applications will arrive at the same time, and selection depends entirely on the vagaries of the Postal Service, winning really boils down to dumb luck.

Vera A. Weisz, a Los Angeles immigration attorney, recalled that in the first lottery she and a friend in Washington submitted their clients’ applications together.

A quarter of her clients were accepted but none of her friend’s were. “I just lead a charmed life, I guess,” Weisz said.

Postal officials predict that this year’s allocation will be consumed in record time. “I’d say in all likelihood, it’ll all be over in the first hour or two,” Potter said.

The best chances by far will be for the Irish, who have been guaranteed at least 16,000 of the 40,000 visas for three years.

The program especially favors the estimated 100,000 Irish living illegally in the United States because of the requirement that all applicants have a firm job offer to be eligible.

For those illegal immigrants, the lottery has been a godsend.

Sean Benson, executive director of the nonprofit Emerald Isle Immigration Center, said that unlike other groups who have had long and continuous flows of immigrants into this country, such as Mexicans and Chinese, most Irish illegal immigrants have had few ways to legalize their status.

The vast majority of foreigners immigrate through a policy of family reunification, which gives top priority to immediate family members of U.S. residents.

Although the Irish were one of the largest immigrant groups in the past, their numbers have dropped to only a few thousand a year in recent times.

“The Irish missed a generation,” he said. “Now, there is no existing system for them to become legal.”

Benson said the lottery is only righting past wrongs that placed Irish immigrants at a disadvantage. “We got our piece for three years and that’s it,” he said. “It’s very easy to say the Irish are the big winners, but the fact of the matter is that everyone got something out of this bill.”

Critics of the program say the favoritism shown the Irish is galling considering there are many immigrant populations that also could have benefited.

Janis, of the Central American Refugee Center, spoke of the frustration at seeing so many visas given away at a time of unprecedented growth of refugees.

“We have seen tens of thousands of refugees here, very few of whom have been granted asylum, and here these people will given visas in a lottery,” she said.

She added that the backlog of relatives waiting to join family members in the United States runs into the years. “The people who really need these visas are family members who want to be together,” she said.

Stein, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, criticized the program for doing nothing to further either humanitarian aims or more practical immigration concerns, such as attracting more highly skilled and educated workers.

“It’s symptomatic of a rudderless policy,” Stein said. “It’s arbitrary, elitist and responds to no identifiable policy interest.”

Complaints from immigration groups, however, have been largely muted because the lottery takes no visas away from family reunification and employment immigration, whose allocations were actually increased by the 1990 Immigration Act.

Janis added that after three years, the lottery will be much fairer when most countries will be eligible. “It’s not that bad a program after that,” she said.

Many advocacy groups say that one of the biggest problems with the lottery is the prime opportunity it gives shady operators to bilk immigrants.

Advertisements from lawyers have been appearing in foreign-language newspapers, offering prompt delivery of an application for fees as high as $2,500--even though applicants can file the application themselves.

Some companies have been charging thousands of dollars for personal delivery of an application to Washington, D.C., although the Postal Service says that will not improve the odds because of the unpredictable time it takes to deliver and sort the mail.

To prevent prospective immigrants from being taken in, the Irish Voice newspaper in New York City has refused to run any ads from companies seeking to charge for lottery application services.

“I consider any money charged for the initial application excessive,” said Niall O’Dowd, publisher of the Irish Voice.

The Irish Voice, along with several religious and immigration groups, has been offering free help so applicants can make their own applications.

“It’s been absolutely clear that a letter and a stamp is all you need,” O’Dowd said.

In Southern California, the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. announced an offer in July to handle applications for $25. The group has prepared about 400 applications to be filed when the lottery’s starting date is announced.

But the simplicity of the process and the availability of inexpensive services has not detered some immigrants from seeking high-priced attorneys in an effort to eke out any sliver of advantage--even if it’s only in their minds.

Toshiyuki Inoue, a 33-year-old from Japan, said that for him, winning permanent residency is a dream worth almost any cost.

Inoue found an attorney who charged him $1,000 to file a single application, plus another $2,500 if he is successful in the lottery.

He did not flinch.

“It’s expensive, but I think it’s worth it,” Inoue said. “You can’t calculate what it is worth. It’s my future.”

Visas by Lottery

Here is a look at visa lottery programs in the United States. The State Department has run two previous lotteries, both temporary measures. This year, the first permanent visa lottery program will begin; it will provide 40,000 visas for three years and then increase to 55,000 visas a year starting Oct. 1, 1994. For more information, call the State Department Lottery Hotline, (202) 663-1600.


The first visa lottery in U.S. history was held in 1987. The program, called NP-5, was proposed as a temporary measure designed to increase the diversity of immigrants entering the United States.

A total of 1.4 million applications were received during the Jan. 21-Jan. 27 application period. The program was eventually extended for three years. Congress also agreed to increase the number of available visas from 5,000 to 15,000 each year. VISAS GRANTED (TOP 10 COUNTRIES)

COUNTRY 1987 1988 1989 1990 TOTAL Ireland 1,735 2,185 8,529 3,900 16,349 Canada 1,215 581 2,563 2,697 7,056 Great Britain/ 616 504 1,224 1,261 3,605 N. Ireland Poland 121 358 90 2,816 3,385 Indonesia 353 305 999 1,724 3,381 Japan 212 299 331 571 1,413 Italy 108 170 272 394 944 Argentina 83 94 220 313 710 Germany 140 130 186 221 677 France 97 70 145 212 524 TOP 10 COUNTRIES 4,680 4,696 14,559 14,109 38,044 TOTAL: ALL COUNTRIES 5,000 5,012 15,000 15,038 40,050 TOTAL:


After NP-5, Congress agreed to another temporary visa lottery that was opened to residents of all but 13 of the 170-odd countries in the world. The OP-1 program was to provide 10,000 visas for fiscal years 1990 and 1991. During an application period from March 1 to March 31, 1989, 3.2 million applications were received. Here is a look at the visas granted to the top 10 countries: VISAS GRANTED (TOP 10 COUNTRIES)

COUNTRY 1990 Bangladesh 2,218 Pakistan 909 Egypt 469 Peru 458 Trinidad and Tobago 428 Fiji 323 Poland 349 Iran 333 Malaysia 272 Indonesia 258 TOP 10 COUNTRIES 6,017 TOTAL ALL COUNTRIES 10,009 TOTAL

SOURCE: U.S. State Department


In 1990, Congress approved the first permanent visa lottery program. The initial phase is called AA-1 and will provide 40,000 visas a year. Its first lottery will take place next month. The program will continue for three years before being replaced by yet another system. Here is the list of eligible countries: Albania













Great Britain/N. Ireland














New Caledonia



San Marino





The permanent lottery program, which will resemble the OP-1 program, will start in 1994. There is no official name for the program at this time. Congress has approved 55,000 visas a year for the lottery. Residents of all countries will be eligible for the program, with the likely exception of these countries: Canada


Dominican Republic

El Salvador




South Korea





Great Britain