By Walter Ewing, Immigration Impact
For the second year in a row, many winners of the diversity visa lottery face the prospect of losing their chance to come to the United States because the federal government can’t—or won’t—issue their visas in time.
The 2020 lottery winners are still suffering the effects of restrictive Trump-era policies. Winners of the 2021 lottery are being held back by the Biden administration’s inability to issue diversity visas in a timely fashion. Lottery winners from both years have taken their cases to court.
A bill introduced in the House of Representatives would allow lottery winners to remain eligible for their visas even after the end of the fiscal year in which they were selected.
The Diversity Visa Program
Congress created the diversity visa program in 1990 to encourage immigration to the United States from countries that have been historically underrepresented in the U.S. immigrant population. The program makes up to 55,000 immigrant visas available each year to eligible nationals of such countries.
Because competition for diversity visas is so intense, each year’s “winners” are chosen through a lottery. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, 23.2 million people filed applications for a diversity visa. (This number includes both principal beneficiaries and their dependents.)
The Legacy of the Trump Administration’s Immigration Bans
Former President Trump banned travel to the United States from six Muslim-majority countries in 2017. He then banned most immigration into the country in 2020. These bans effectively shut down the diversity visa program.
When the 2020 immigrant visa ban went into effect, roughly 40,000 of that year’s diversity visas had not yet been issued. If the government did not issue those visas by the end of the fiscal year (September 30), the intended recipients of the visas would lose their chance to immigrate to the United States.
This prompted several lawsuits by some winners of the 2020 lottery who were denied their visas. In September 2020, the U.S. District Court for the District Columbia ordered the Trump administration to continue issuing diversity visas in a case that consolidated five such lawsuits. The court separately ordered the administration to reserve 9,095 diversity visas for future processing pending the resolution of the case.
On August 17, 2021, the court ordered the Biden administration to issue those 9,095 diversity visas from FY 2020.
State Department Bureaucracy Under the Biden Administration
Even though the Trump administration has come to an end, the diversity visa program continues to suffer under the Biden administration. The State Department is issuing visas to the winners of the 2021 diversity visa lottery at an extraordinarily slow pace. By the end of June 2021, the department had issued only 3,094 diversity visas for FY 2021. Any of the winners of this year’s lottery who don’t receive their visas by September 30 will lose their chance to come to the United States.
The State Department says that diversity visas are being issued so slowly because U.S. embassies and consulates abroad are backlogged with cases due to closures and capacity limits related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the slow pace of diversity visa issuance also results from the fact that diversity visas are currently assigned the lowest priority level of any visa category.
In June 2021, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of more than 24,000 winners of the 2021 diversity visa lottery demanding that the Biden administration issue all of this year’s diversity visas before September 30.
The Keeping Our Promise Act
Some members of Congress want to provide legislative relief to diversity visa lottery winners who have been denied their visas.
On May 25, 2021, Representatives Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and Judy Chu (D-CA) introduced the Keeping Our Promise Act (H.R. 3548).
This bill would allow lottery winners who were denied a visa because of COVID-19 restrictions or Trump-era travel bans to remain eligible for their visas. The Keeping Our Promise Act would apply to winners of any diversity visa lottery held between 2017 and 2021.
It will likely take years to repair the widespread damage that the Trump administration inflicted on the U.S. immigration system. But the Biden administration can and should do more to resume visa processing abroad and ensure that winners of the diversity visa lottery do not lose their opportunity to come to the United States.