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The 2012 Green Card Lottery Mess

Computer glitch turns 22,316 visa winners into losers


Good intentions and good computers aren’t always enough to ensure that immigration officials get a good outcome when they try to give out green cards.

One of the most embarrassing mistakes for the government occurred in May 2011 when the U.S. State Department discovered a glitch in a computer program that erroneously chose 22,316 applicants as winners of the next year's diversity visas.

The diversity visa program was mandated by Congress in 1995 to randomly give away 50,000 green cards each year to prospective Americans from under-represented countries of origin – places that haven’t sent many immigrants here. For example, people from Canada, Mexico, China, the United Kingdom and other specified countries are ineligible for the lottery because their immigrants are well-represented in the U.S. population. And no one country can receive more than 7% of the diversity visas offered.

The idea behind this green card lottery is to give people who don’t have family or prospective employers in the United States a chance to come and make the country more ethnically and culturally diverse.

The odds of success are remote. The government received more than 19 million applicants in 2011 for the 50,000 spots. So, the chances of winning are a small fraction of one percent. And even winners still must prove they meet the requirements for immigration.

The State Department announced the winners in May but their celebrations were short-lived. Two weeks later, officials said that the drawing would have to be redone because of a computer glitch that had picked more than 90 percent of the winners from the first two days of registration, rather than the entire 30-day period.

David T. Donahue, the deputy assistant secretary of state, said the results “were invalid because they did not represent fair, random selection of entrants, as required by U.S. law.”

He said, “We sincerely regret any inconvenience or disappointment this problem might have caused.”

For many, the inconvenience was extreme. So was the disappointment. People sold their property, quit their jobs and even got married in the mistaken belief that they soon would be residing in the United States. Imagine holding the winning Powerball Lotto Ticket one day then learning the drawing was nullified the next.

The government fixed the computer error, held a new lottery and posted a new list of winners in July.

Some of the 22,316 May winners filed a class-action suit against the State Department and argued they should be allowed to go forward and receive visas. But a federal judge in Washington rejected the claim.

“The Court cannot order the Department of State to honor a botched process that did not satisfy the regulatory and statutory requirements,” said U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in a 35-page ruling. “There are 19 million more stories, from other lottery participants, many of which may be equally or even more compelling, and it is for that reason that Congress determined that every applicant would have an equal chance of winning the right to apply for a visa.”

In other words, the court couldn’t side with the 22,316 because they were no more deserving than 22,316 others who would have won spots if the lottery had been run properly. The only fair solution for 2012 was a do-over, as painful and unpopular for many as that would be.

The State Department pledged to fix the technical problems and guarantee the lottery’s reliability going forward. Officials ordered an internal investigation. But the damage to the United States’ credibility was already done.

The green card lottery has endured more than its share of frauds and scams over the years from disreputable opportunists and con artists who have preyed on immigrants. But trust in the government’s management of the program never had been doubted seriously until 2011.

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