Lottery of 40,000 U.S. Residency Visas Attracts a Crowd and Millions of Entries


Thousands of prospective immigrants from around the country descended on this town Sunday, in a scramble to win legal residency in the United States through a unique lottery of 40,000 visas beginning at 12:01 this morning.

Their destination was the Merrifield General Mail Facility, where lines of prospective immigrants--toting bags, boxes and suitcases stuffed with applications--hoped to improve their chances by delivering their applications in person to the single post office box designated for the program.

“I’ve been all over America doing this, posting letters from every major city,” said Sam, a 45-year-old British construction worker who has been living in this country illegally. “I’m trying to lengthen the odds.”


The visa lottery--the nation’s first permanent immigration program based on luck--was established by Congress last year with the purpose of “diversifying” the flow of immigrants, which, over the past 30 years, has been dominated by people from Asia and Latin America.

The lottery was open to residents of 34 countries, most of them in Europe, considered to have been “adversely affected” by current U.S. immigration policy, which favors foreigners who have immediate relatives in the United States or have needed skills.

The biggest winners will be the Irish, who, thanks to the prodding of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), were guaranteed at least 40% of the visas for the first three years.

For many living abroad and others already here illegally, the visa lottery is one of the few avenues of immigration to this country.

The Merrifield facility has been inundated with applications. Postal Service spokesman Robert Faruq said that about 5 million applications were received before the 12:01 starting time--and all of them will be discarded.

Faruq guessed that by the end of the one-week filing period at 11:59 p.m., Oct. 20, the number could reach 10 million or more.

Most of those applications also will be discarded, since the visas are being granted on a first-come, first-served basis and will probably be filled in a matter of hours.

“There is no doubt in my mind that by 8 or 10 o’clock, the State Department will have all the applications it needs,” Faruq said.

Faruq said that because of the vagaries of the postal system, there was absolutely no advantage to be gained by coming in person. In fact, he said, applicants may have hurt their chances because all the mail received at Merrifield on Sunday will not be processed until Monday morning.

That didn’t stop thousands from coming here anyway.

Between 1,200 and 1,300 immigrants, friends or family members waited in line Sunday afternoon at Merrifield Post Office to drop their applications into 35 collection bins set up at two locations on the lot, according to a Fairfax County police estimate.

Others sat in the parking lot or picnicked on the grass nearby, waiting for what they calculated as the most opportune time to drop their letters in the bins, then, usually, placing a few in each bin as they walked down the line.

Their applications joined those of the nearly 30,000 other hopefuls who came to mail their letters Saturday, according to Bill Coulter of the county police.

Tom Shimura, a director of a Japanese-American students’ organization in New York, said his group has had people in Merrifield since Oct. 3, “just to check out the whole possibility.”

Shimura, 28, sat in his station wagon in a $50-a-day space he had rented from the gas station next to the post office. Shopping bags filled with letters surrounded the car.

“Yesterday before seven, we had about 50,000” letters and eight men distributing them, Shimura said. “Yesterday was the real time to distribute.”

Mick, a 26-year-old illegal immigrant from England, said lawyers told him it would take nearly six years to get a green card via conventional methods. He came to Merrifield on Thursday from San Jose, Calif., where he works in construction, because, he said, “there is so much conflicting information. . . . If we didn’t come, we wouldn’t know.”

Although he mailed in 1,250 applications, Mick said that because he is from Britain his chances of getting a green card through the lottery are “pretty slim--one in 100 if I’m lucky.”

But he said even if he isn’t one of the winners, “I ain’t going home. . . . This is where I want to live. It’s the only place I can see a future. There’s no future for me in England, no opportunity.” For those who don’t succeed this time, another lottery will be held next year, and another the year after that.

After that, a new lottery, offering 55,000 visas a year, will be open to residents of most countries, with the probable exception of those from “high-admission” nations such as Mexico, China, El Salvador and Haiti.

There have been two previous programs, both temporary measures that provided far fewer visas.

The first lottery, in 1987, drew 1.4 million applications over a one-week period; 5,000 visas were granted, and a further 35,000 visas were granted after that program, known as NP-5, was extended for three more years.

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