Judge saves US visas for some, not all lottery winners

In this Sept. 23, 2021, photo provided by Marcos Antonio Portal Quintero, shows Cuban economics student Dorisnelly Fuentes Matos, 27, second from left, with a group of Cuban citizens outside the U.S. embassy in Georgetown, Guyana. Dorisnelly Fuentes Matos may have won the U.S. visa lottery on paper, but she still isn't close to reaching the United States. Marcos Antonio Portal Quintero via AP) (Uncredited)

A U.S. judge has set aside roughly 7,000 visas allowing people who won a lottery aimed at increasing the country's diversity to try to go to the United States after the government issued only a fraction of the visas allocated for the past year.

U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta in Washington issued the order after the State Department gave out only 27% of up to 55,000 diversity visas allotted for the fiscal year that ended in September. The agency has said the delays stemmed from coronavirus-related issues, but Mehta said that's only part of the problem.

“Some of that shortfall is no doubt due to the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic is not the primary culprit,” Mehta wrote in a ruling late Thursday. “That would be the State Department’s complete cessation of adjudicating diversity visa applications for five months and its unlawful deprioritizing of those applications when adjudications resumed.”

A State Department official declined to comment on the decision.

Millions of people from around the world enter the lottery each year, hoping for a shot at a visa to go to the United States. Their chances are already slim, with up to 55,000 visas set aside each year for people from countries with low representation in the United States, many from Africa and Europe. From there, applicants must file paperwork and wait in another line for a consular interview, and not all get visas before the U.S. runs out even in a normal year.

Any visas that are not issued typically expire at the end of the fiscal year each September.

Those circumstances led to Mehta's calculation on how many visas should remain viable for more than 20,000 applicants from countries spanning from Cuba to Nepal who sued over the delays. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they were pleased he kept the hopes of some of their clients alive, but it was not enough, adding that the lottery winners now face a roughly 1-in-3 chance of prevailing.

“It’s unfortunate that now our plaintiffs have to do another lottery,” lawyer Rafael Urena said in a statement.

After the pandemic hit, the Trump administration put a freeze on many green cards issued outside of the United States, including the diversity visas. The Biden administration lifted the freeze on green cards, but the State Department still wasn't issuing most of the visas. Applicants sued both last year and this year to get some visas saved.

Lizbeth Rosales, a 38-year-old who studied tourism in Peru, said she was elated to win the lottery and hoped to move with her husband and two young children to New Orleans where she had previously worked at a hotel.

Now, she said their future is uncertain. With the pandemic walloping Peru's tourism industry, Rosales said her husband traveled to Canada on a work visa and took a job in a restaurant there. It could take until next year for the U.S. litigation to wrap up and the visas to be made available, and she doesn't know if they will win, she said.

“We don't know how they'll give them out,” Rosales said. “The odds are low."

Dorisnelly Fuentes Matos called the decision “a total injustice.” The 27-year-old lottery winner and her husband traveled from Cuba to Guyana to wait for an interview at the U.S. embassy in Georgetown, which handles Cubans’ visa applications, but it never came.

“We don’t know what we’ll do because we can’t stay here and we don’t have money to go someplace else,” she said.