Born in war-torn Yemen, pictured with his child, Mohammed Alarefi has faced barricades coming to the United States despite him and his wife winning the US Diversity Visa Lottery three times. Photo courtesy of Mohammed Alarefi
WASHINGTON, Dec. 8 (UPI) — When Mohammed Alarefi, born in war-torn Yemen, won the US visa lottery in May 2018, it was the realization of his childhood dream: a chance to move to America.
“I registered every year until the miracle happened and I was chosen” for a diversity visa for fiscal 2019,” said Alarefi.
The Diversity Visa Lottery program allows people to be randomly selected from countries with low immigration rates to the United States to obtain visas.
Up to 55,000 diversity visas are available each year, and the selected ones can bring spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21, which are called derivatives.
But the timing of Alarefi’s miracle couldn’t have been worse.
Winners and their derivatives must complete the visa application process within the fiscal year for which they were selected. Fiscal years run from October 1 to September 30.
Anyone who does not obtain their diversity visa before the end of the fiscal year will lose their place. With less than a 1% chance of being selected in the visa lottery, failing to get the visa on time means they have most likely lost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
In January 2017, President Donald Trump had signed an executive order banning travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Yemen. That was just the beginning of an assortment of barriers that prevented those who won diversity visas from coming to the United States.
National security cited
The justification for Trump’s ban was national security, but critics attacked the rule as targeting Muslims. Although the courts initially blocked it and changed the banned countries list several times, the Supreme Court eventually allowed the ban to take effect.
And while it was only an entry ban, the State Department refused to issue diversity visas to lottery winners from countries covered by the ban. When that was in place, Alarefi and his family were unable to obtain visas until the fiscal year ended.
“This is where my dream was shattered for the first time,” Alarefi said.
But he refused to give up and applied for the visa lottery again the following year. Despite the odds, he won again in the fiscal diversity lottery for 2020. And again, he and his family couldn’t get visas.
“They destroyed us and destroyed our dreams without the slightest responsibility,” Alarefi said.
Solmaz Vosog, 2019 visa lottery winner from Iran, said she feels that her family has been discriminated against.
When they found out they couldn’t get visas because of the travel ban, “my astonished son asked, ‘Is there still religious and racial discrimination in America?'” Vosog said. “The constitution says that all people are equal.”
Biden ends ban
On his first day in office, President Joe Biden issued a presidential proclamation ending Trump’s travel ban, calling it “a blot on our national conscience.”
However, Biden’s administration later announced that diversity visa winners whose status had expired during the ban would have to re-enter the lottery, citing federal law limiting their eligibility to one fiscal year.
Incredibly, Alarefi’s wife won the visa lottery in the Diversity Visa Program for fiscal 2021.
“My wife and my child and I celebrated days and nights,” he said.
But even though the travel ban expired in January, Alarefi’s family still couldn’t get a visa. More and more barriers blocked immigrants who had won lotteries.
They were not alone. A series of bans, policies and delays related to COVID-19 caused many 2020 and 2021 winners to forfeit their chance to come to the United States.
That’s because on April 20, 2020, Trump issued Presidential Proclamation 10014, which suspended entry of most immigrants, including visa lottery winners and their derivatives, into the United States to protect the country’s economic recovery from the pandemic.
The State Department interpreted this as a freeze on not only immigrant entry, but also the issuance of immigrant visas.
COVID-19 causes ban
Also, between January 2020 and April 2021, Trump and then Biden issued presidential proclamations suspending entry by non-Americans from numerous countries to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In March 2020, the State Department began to interpret these regional entry bans as a ban on issuing visas to persons subject to the ban.
Biden ended the regional bans on October 25.
Different COVID-19 policies impacted visa processing.
In March 2020, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered all diplomatic and consular posts “to immediately suspend all routine non-immigrant and immigrant visa services” due to the pandemic.
Consular posts were limited to providing “mission-critical and emergency visa services,” which did not include processing diversity visas.
After consular posts were allowed to resume their services, the State Department implemented a tiered prioritization system in November 2020 that put diversity visas in the bottom lane.
This arrangement remained in effect even after Biden reversed Proclamation 10014 and the State Department ended it only in November.
Differentiated prioritization significantly limited the number of diversity visas issued. By the end of fiscal 2021, the State Department had issued only about 15,000 of the nearly 55,000 visas allocated for the year.
Worse than before
Many visa lottery winners who were unable to obtain a visa say they were in worse shape than before, as many had given up their education and work or even sold their homes in anticipation of moving to the United States.
A State Department official said the phased priority scheme was implemented because the department had reduced capacity to process visa applications due to the pandemic and chose to prioritize family reunification.
Curtis Morrison, a lawyer who represents visa lottery winners who are suing the government for not being able to get visas because of COVID-19 policies, criticized the Biden administration for continuing some of Trump’s policies and fighting in court to sue. prevent them from issuing expired diversity visas.
“They want to keep these immigrants on diversity visas out,” Morrison said. “Why that is, I have no idea, because Biden was walking on a platform that said he would increase diversity visa grants, but he’s fighting those who have been assigned. It makes no sense.”
A State Department official said it is the Department’s policy to try and issue as many of the approximately 55,000 diversity visas available each fiscal year, but “there is currently no legal authority or mechanism to control the Department. of Foreign Affairs on its own initiative to provide for [diversity visa] applicants from previous years with an opportunity to request a reconsideration of their eligibility for a diversity visa.”
There is hope for some visa lottery winners, thanks to a series of lawsuits in which judges have ordered the State Department to either issue a number of diversity visas or set aside a certain amount pending the outcome of a lawsuit.
But for the vast majority of winners, their only hope is the language in the current version of the Build Back Better law.
It would make 2017 through 2021 diversity visas available to winners and derivatives who were denied visas or entry due to Trump’s travel ban or who were unable to obtain visa interviews or enter the country due to COVID-19 or due to bans, policies, and delays in processing related to the pandemic.
However, Morrison said he is concerned the language won’t make it into the final draft of the bill, as diversity visa winners don’t have as much support as other categories of immigrants, such as universities looking to bring in international students or Big Tech seeking to bring in people on work visas. .
“I don’t want any of my clients to have false hopes,” Morrison said. “I would hate it if they were left in the dark, wondering whether or not they will get relief from Congress when I know our Congress just isn’t known for that.”
However, Alarefi is not giving up hope.
“Our dream is simple: just emigrate to America,” he said.