WASHINGTON — The annual visa lottery--perhaps the strangest ritual in all of U.S. immigration policy--will begin next month, sparking millions of entries from foreigners who will buck long odds for a chance to start life anew in America.
Its very existence is a reminder that, even after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States keeps its door open to newcomers more than do most other nations, and that the dream of life here continues to stir people from all over the world.
But since the terrorist attacks, the unusual sweepstakes has been beset by heightened security fears. In just the last few months, three lottery winners from the Middle East have gained notoriety for crimes and allegations that go to the heart of America's anxieties in the war against terrorism.
Ahmed Hannan and Karim Koubriti, indicted Aug. 28 as members of an alleged terrorist "sleeper" cell in Michigan planning attacks here and abroad, came to this country in 2000 after winning the lottery in Morocco, according to State Department officials and court records.
And in July, an Egyptian who became a legal U.S. resident after his wife won the visa lottery went on a shooting rampage at Los Angeles International Airport, killing two people.
The next visa lottery, scheduled to open for entries on Oct. 7, "is simply not in the interest of our national security," said Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.), chairman of the House subcommittee on immigration, pointing to the Michigan indictments to make his case.
By all reckonings, it is an event of interest around the world, a sweepstakes that has stirred riots in Sierra Leone and stampedes in Cuba. But in the United States, despite Sept. 11, the lottery remains a routine event, reflecting the official view that legal immigration can be a positive force and that America benefits from the energy and enterprise of its newest residents.
Congress enacted the first version of the lottery in the 1980s when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and other legislators sought to broaden the stream of immigrants, which was dominated by Latin Americans and Asians who were allowed entry either as political refugees or because they were sponsored by close relatives or employers already in the United States. Undocumented Irish immigrants in Kennedy's home state were an early concern, and the first contests set aside winning slots for the Irish.
The current version of the lottery provides up to 50,000 permanent residence visas each year to individuals lacking the family or job sponsors that most legal immigrants rely on. Winners are chosen in a computerized drawing. Preferences for the Irish have long since expired.
From 1998 to 2000, 46% of the winners came from Europe, 22% from the Middle East and 22% from sub-Sahara Africa, according to estimates by the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks to limit immigration.
In 2000, participants mailed 13 million applications to the State Department. Last year, following the Sept. 11 attacks, the number slipped to 9.5 million. Entries this year must be received between Oct. 7 and Nov. 6, and winners will be notified in 2003. (Instructions are available at http://travel.state.gov.)
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Los Angeles), who championed the visa lottery in a simpler era of immigration policy, reflects the shifting attitudes toward the lottery. In July, one of Berman's constituents was shot to death by Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, a limousine driver from Egypt, at the El Al Israel airlines ticket counter at LAX.
Berman said he continues to support immigration for such goals as reuniting families, providing political asylum and supplying qualified workers to American employers. But, alluding to the LAX shootings, he said he worries that a lottery may pose "a certain randomness and lack of institutional safeguards ... that maybe creates a higher risk of this kind of thing happening."
"The visa lottery program, I have greater questions about that now, whether it's a sensible policy," Berman said.
Security Flaws Are Cited
Supporters maintain that the program continues to fill a useful role for deserving immigrants and assert that the concerns voiced by Berman underscore the need for providing more efficient security, not for eliminating the lottery.
"Individuals who are otherwise eligible under our laws should be allowed to immigrate to the United States," Kennedy said in a statement. Security risks, he added, are not the fault of the lottery itself but rather "result from inadequate screening and the lack of intelligence information shared among government agencies."
Others applaud the lottery's basic goal. "It adds to the richness of the American experience by bringing different peoples into the country," said Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "With the proper security measures, we don't see why it should not continue."