For 22,000 people from around the world, joy quickly turned to despair when they were told that their good luck in winning a U.S. green card was all a big mistake.
Ever since he traveled from his home near Yaounde, Cameroon, on a scholarship to Michigan State University in 2009, Dieudonné Kuate dreamed of immigrating to the United States.
As a visiting graduate student in epidemiology, he marveled at the sophistication of the chemistry labs and the excellence of the teaching. There was no comparison to his university in Yaounde, where he shared a cramped 27-square-foot room with three other students.
One of eight children, Mr. Kuate grew up on a poor farm in the western plateau town of Banjoun. His parents couldn't read or write. Mr. Kuate is the only child in his family to complete university. "My dreams have been to be a top researcher in my field of specialty. The only place I see these goals being realized is the United States," says the 31-year-old Mr. Kuate, who returned to Yaounde last year and finished his Ph.D. in chemistry.
For the past six years, Mr. Kuate has applied for the State Department's annual green-card lottery, and, like 15 million other people, he applied again this year. The 20-year-old program offers about 50,000 people a year a chance to win permanent residence in the U.S.—and a ticket to the American Dream.
Denied six times, Mr. Kuate finally saw his number come up on May 1.
"There is no English word to express my happiness when I discovered that I was selected," said Mr. Kuate, whose first name means "God given."
Within days, his older brother sold family land in Banjoun for around $4,400 for Mr. Kuate to use for application fees, medical examinations and to start a new life in the U.S., he said. His mother believed God had intervened: "According to her, I was going to travel to the white man's country and see how to help other family members who have not gone far in book work," he said.
But on May 13, those hopes were abruptly dashed. After logging on to the State Department website, Mr. Kuate said, "I saw a message saying the lottery had been canceled."
Mr. Kuate was among 22,000 people around the world mistakenly informed last month that they had won the lottery. There had been a technical glitch and the lottery would have to be held again, the State Department said, explaining that a computer had selected 90% of the winners from the first two days of the application window instead of the full 30-day registration period.
The snafu is the latest twist in the contentious history of the immigration lottery. The Diversity Visa Program was authorized by Congress in 1990 as a way to increase immigration from under-represented countries. Though supporters still believe it's the most democratic way to allow new immigrants into the country, critics want to eliminate it altogether, arguing that immigrants shouldn't be chosen at random but for their skills and family relationships.
I felt I was in heaven. The American dream actualized,' said one of the mistaken winners.
The cause of the lottery glitch, State Department officials said in an interview, was software—a human error that one official said was akin to a "typo" embedded in millions of lines of code.
Told they would have to reapply, Mr. Kuate and three dozen of those who were mistakenly selected filed a lawsuit last week in federal court against the State Department seeking to reinstate their selection rather than make them compete in another round. The State Department said that the first drawing wasn't random and a new one will be held, in fairness to applicants who submitted their entries after the first two days.
Though they come from a cross section of countries, careers and cultures, the applicants tell similar tales of hopes shattered and dreams extinguished after receiving news of the lottery error.
Nigerian molecular biologist Ugoo Anieto, 31, had tried the lottery 14 times, starting when he was 18. After being chosen this time, Mr. Anieto quickly got the required physical exam and vaccinations. Now he's despondent.
"I don't know how death feels," said Mr. Anieto. "But I feel this is more bitter than death."
Alejandro Alvarez, a 26-year-old graduate student in Alicante, Spain, recalls watching episodes of "The A-Team" and "Family Matters" as a child and dreaming of living in America. After receiving notice that he'd won, Mr. Alvarez says he began imagining a new life working toward a doctorate in economics at the University of Chicago.
Stuart McBrien, a 34-year-old Irishman who lives in the U.K., said he entered the lottery out of "a sense of adventure." The management consultant said he and his wife "admire the American way of life."
About a million people immigrate legally to the U.S. each year, primarily through family- or employment-based programs. Because of lengthy backlogs, it can take several years for a green-card application to be processed.
Getting a green card is complicated. Many variables, including an applicant's country of origin and relationship to a U.S. sponsor, influence the speed. For employment-based green cards, applicants must show they possess extraordinary abilities or skills that will benefit the U.S.
Applicants from some countries, such as India, China, Mexico and the Philippines, endure particularly long waits because of an annual limit on how many people can immigrate to the U.S. from any single country. It can take more than a decade to bring a brother or sister here as a legal immigrant.
The lottery, however, offers one of the fastest paths to a green card, typically less than two years.
The U.S. immigration system is weighted disproportionately toward uniting families, which results in a high percentage of people coming from Latin America and Asia. For the first four years after the Diversity Visa Program was passed by Congress, it favored the Irish. In 1995, it was expanded to accept entries from everywhere except countries already heavily represented in the U.S. immigrant pool.
Since then, the lottery has drawn ever-larger numbers of submissions, attracting people from a variety of backgrounds, from physicists to plumbers, all of them eager for a chance at a new life.
The lottery has succeeded in its goal of diversifying the immigrant population, according to an April report by the Congressional Research Service. In 2009, for example, 49% of lottery immigrants came from Africa, which contributed only 11% of the total 1.1 million legal immigrants to the U.S. that year.
Like other green-card holders, lottery winners eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship.
"It is the only purely democratic way a person can legally come to the United States other than being sponsored by a relative or employer," said Mark Jacobsen, an immigration attorney in Haleiwa, Hawaii. "The American dream is held out as a torch to the entire world."
Thousands of people apply from Italy, Japan and other prosperous countries. But the program is especially popular in the developing world, where it creates a frenzy in the months leading up to the 30-day period in the fall when entries are accepted.
Banners advertising the lottery festoon remote villages and narrow urban alleyways in such places as Bangladesh and Ethiopia, where self-styled "visa agents" market their services translating forms and filling them out for applicants who lack English skills. Lines snake outside Internet kiosks where people file the electronic entries.
In the days when the lottery was paper-based, the State Department's Kentucky Consular Center, which handles the program, created a post-office address with a fictitious city named Migrate, Ky., putting the address on applications. Applicants mailed their forms to the city and lottery winners who eventually settled in the U.S. would sometimes search in vain for Migrate on the U.S. map.
In 2005, when the State Department first allowed people to apply online, almost six million entries were submitted. It's free to enter. Only the winners pay $819 in application and other fees.
Applicants typically send in their entries electronically in the fall. In the spring, the State Department holds the electronic draw, which results in 100,000 winners being notified on May 1 that they have been selected for further processing.
Many people are then weeded out for failing to meet deadlines and requirements. Ultimately, about 50,000 of the winners get green cards.
Fraud is a major challenge. The fervor for a shot at the American dream prompted one Bangladeshi man to submit 2,800 entries this year, State Department officials said. Fake marriages are sometimes arranged between a winner and stranger for money. False birth certificates, marriage certificates and high-school records are also common, the officials said.
In past years, some brokers who helped people fill out an entry used their own address on the application and then extorted money from winners or sold a winning number to another individual, the officials said. It's the reason this year, for the first time, individuals were notified electronically of the results, rather than by mail.
The recent lottery snafu renews questions about whether the current U.S. immigration system is outdated. A majority of lawmakers and the business community have long argued that the current system, last reformed in 1990, doesn't meet the needs of the 21st century.
Congress has failed several times in recent years to agree on a comprehensive immigration overhaul amid a heated debate over whether to provide 11 million illegal immigrants, who overstayed their visas or entered the U.S. unlawfully, with a pathway to legalization.
Some lawmakers argue that, to benefit the economy, a new system should emphasize skills over family ties. Others argue that the U.S. must attract more immigrants to perform essential, low-skilled jobs. Otherwise, they say, low-wage service and farming jobs will continue to be filled by illegal immigrants.
Though the Diversity Visa Program represents a small percentage of legal immigrants, it has spawned controversy. At a House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee hearing in April, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia who has introduced legislation to eliminate the program, called the lottery "grossly unfair" because it allows people to bypass others who have waited years to immigrate to the U.S.
Others at the hearing said the program is inviting to terrorists, because it doesn't exclude nationals from countries that sponsor terrorism or require applicants to have special skills or family bonds in the U.S.
The State Department says it has modernized the lottery to comply with security measures mandated by the USA Patriot Act of 2001. Those who get in through the lottery are subjected to the same security review as other visa applicants, a department official said.
Backers of the program say it creates goodwill toward the U.S. They also highlight the winners' contributions to American society, as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, decorated soldiers, professional athletes and scientists.
Although lottery immigrants are required only to have a high-school education or two years of experience in an occupation, they are more likely than other immigrants to possess managerial and professional backgrounds, the April Congressional Research report said. In 2009, 24% of diversity immigrants reported managerial and professional occupations, compared with 10% of the total legal immigrants that year.
Mr. Anieto, the molecular biologist, dreamed of making it in America ever since he was a young boy in Onitsha, Nigeria, following Michael Jordan's victories with the Chicago Bulls and watching Bill Cosby on television. "Seeing those skyscrapers in New York was breathtaking," he said.
He listened to Voice of America radio, which sent him maps of the U.S., with brief histories and illustrations of different places, helping to fuel his imagination.
Mr. Anieto entered the green-card lottery for the first time after he became eligible as an adult, at age 18. "I played the lottery every year for 14 years," said Mr. Anieto, who specializes in biofuel research.
Without the lottery green card, Mr. Anieto, who came on a student visa to attend the University of North Texas at Denton, would have to find an employer to sponsor him to remain in the U.S. after completing his doctorate. That can cost several thousand dollars. It also deprives Mr. Anieto of the freedom to change jobs while he is on a work visa.
Mr. Anieto stumbled out of bed in the wee hours of May 1 to check this year's results on the State Department's website. He typed in his case number and a letter addressed to him popped up, stating that he had been "randomly selected" for further processing.
"I felt I was in heaven. The American dream actualized," recalled Mr. Anieto.
He visited a local clinic for a required physical examination; he got three rounds of vaccinations, which cost about $420; he submitted two required forms to the Kentucky Consular Center.
On May 13, a fellow Nigerian told Mr. Anieto that the draw had been invalidated. Mr. Anieto went on the State Department website and watched a video in which the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Donahue, who oversees the lottery, apologized for the mishap and explained the consequences.
"Regrettably, the results that were previously posted on this website are not valid," Mr. Donohue said, "because they did not represent a fair, random selection of the entrants, as required by U.S. law."
The snafu was contained in a single line of computer code, according to State Department officials. "It was a small coding error—it's just very unfortunate," Mr. Donohue said in an interview. It was caused by human error; no one was fired. "We really regret the frustration," he said.
The State Department had switched to a new program in an effort to improve control and efficiency in the process. The department has since corrected the problem and will use the same program for the next draw, Mr. Donohue said.
On May 1, reports of the lottery selection began to pour in on a popular immigration message board, forums.immigration.com. By that evening, members—many of whom hadn't been chosen—began to post comments saying that most people who had won had applied over the course of just two days.
On May 2, one forum user wrote, "I'm from Ukraine and didn't won…. All winners filled their forms on 5 or 6 of October (mostly fifth). No winners of the later dates… 'random' selection looks very strange."
State Department officials say that, as such evidence accumulated in online forums, they started to investigate.
By the time the State Department took down the site, 1.9 million of the 15 million applicants already had visited the site to check the results. Among them were the 22,000 "winners."
Disenchanted applicants set up a Facebook page they dubbed "22,000 Tears" and started a campaign to draw attention to their plight.
"It's a broken commitment," said Kenneth White, their attorney in the federal suit. "The United States government made a promise to these 22,000 people." Mr. White added that he was hopeful the dispute could be settled amicably out of court.
Anna Demidchik, a 27-year-old second-year law student at Hofstra University studying immigration law, says she has entered the green-card lottery every year since 2007. She admits that she didn't put a lot of faith in the process, so she was surprised to hear that she had won.
Born in Kazakhstan, she won a scholarship in high school to spend a year in rural South Carolina. She later studied Chinese in Russia and then enrolled in a business program in the U.S. before entering law school.
Sitting in her favorite seat in the Hofstra Law School's student lounge, she says that after hearing she had won the lottery, she called her parents in Novosibirsk, Russia. They put their apartment up for sale so that she could take out her one-quarter share of the money—worth about $20,000—and show U.S. authorities that she would have cash to support herself in the U.S.
On May 13, her brother told her to check the Internet because the results had been invalidated. Fidgeting and clutching an 8-ounce water bottle, she said at that moment she was in the middle of final exams so "I couldn't let myself go. But once the finals were over I spent the whole day crying."
Since the disappointing news, she has spent hours writing letters to congressmen and immigration organizations in a quest to get the 22,000 individuals recognized as winners.
In Cameroon, Mr. Kuate is also contemplating his next move. Since discovering his selection was canceled, he said he has grown depressed, losing his appetite.
"I sunk into total shock, disappointment and disbelief," he said.
Inside his cramped room near Yaounde University, under a poster of Michael Jackson, Mr. Kuate said his current conditions are intolerable. "How can one continue to live in this misery—no water, no electricity and even basic food to eat or money to pay for transportation."
While he holds out hope that the State Department will reinstate his selection, he said he is determined to go to the U.S. one way or the other. "Frankly, I'm still trying to put the pieces of my life together," he said.
The State Department said results of a new draw will be available on July 15.
—Emmanuel Tumanjong, Pervaiz Shallwani, Ana Campoy and Ilan Brat contributed to this article.
Write to Miriam Jordan at [email protected] and Alexandra Berzon at [email protected]