What Do You Win When You Win the Diversity Visa Lottery?

“Winning the green card lottery” can be as wonderful as that sounds, but it can also play out as dashed hopes.

By , Attorney · Golden Gate University School of Law

Popularly known as "the green card lottery," the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program generates worldwide excitement every autumn when the annual registration opens. "Winning the green card lottery" can lead to U.S. lawful permanent residence, but it can also result in dashed hopes. (See I.N.A. § 203(c).)

Each year, many people get U.S. green cards through the lottery who wouldn't otherwise qualify for green cards at all, and others cut years off their wait time for a green card. Each year, on the other hand, some people who are lucky enough to win the lottery nevertheless end up without green cards, though they do everything right and can prove their eligibility under the lottery rules.

Why the DV Lottery Can Be a Great Opportunity

U.S. immigration law provides only a few ways to qualify for a green card, and these ways tend to be narrowly defined. (See Green Card Qualification.) The most common ways of getting a green card are through a job offer or a close family member already established in the U.S.—and even these categories leave out many people who would like to make their home in the United States. For the people who find themselves left out, the diversity visa (DV) lottery can provide a chance they otherwise wouldn't have.

Then, too, for many people who do qualify for green cards in other ways, winning the DV lottery significantly shortens what would otherwise be a long wait. Most employment– and family-based categories of green card eligibility are governed by a yearly quota (numerical limit). A backlog develops in most of these categories, since the demand far exceeds the restricted supply. The wait is longer in some categories than for others, and within those categories, the wait is longer for people from countries where the demand is high. (Also see, How Long Is the Wait for an Immigrant's Priority Date to Become Current?.)

Thus, someone from India with a qualifying U.S. job offer in a professional occupation could typically expect to wait around ten years, and a person from the Philippines who qualifies through a U.S. citizen brother or sister could expect a wait of well over 20 years! People facing that kind of wait time would do well to enter the DV lottery every fall when it opens up.

Why the Lottery Can Be a Great Disappointment

The diversity visa (DV) lottery is not exactly a slot machine that spits out green cards. For starters, you are disfavored if you come from a part of the world that already sends many immigrants to the U.S., and people from some countries can't participate at all. In addition, the program sets basic eligibility requirements that exclude some people. (See Do You Meet the Education or Work Requirements of the Diversity Visa Program?)

Then even if you qualify under the DV rules and actually "win" the lottery, you still have to go through the green card application process, and approval is anything but guaranteed. The program's procedural rules exclude a number of people each year who are fully eligible, lucky enough to be selected as "winners," and diligent in pursuing their opportunity.

Why is that? To compensate for lottery entrants who won't ultimately qualify or follow through, the U.S. State Department (DOS) each year selects tens of thousands more entrants than there are slots available. Thus, not all "winners" can apply immediately for lawful permanent residence or green cards when the year's supply of green card slots becomes available under the program.

Each winner is ranked within their part of the world, with the first winner chosen from that region given first opportunity to apply for a visa, and so on. You have to hope you get a good (low) number. People who draw higher numbers must wait to apply, as successive waves of lower-number holders claim their slots—along with their family members, who count against the overall limit. DOS periodically checks to see what remains of the dwindling supply. The supply could be gone before you even get a chance to apply for your green card, if you hold one of the higher numbers among the winning entrants in your geographic region.

Winners can also run out of luck under a second, even harsher DV lottery rule: No green card can be issued after the end of the fiscal year for which the entrant was selected. Whether you apply for your green card within the U.S. or at a U.S. embassy abroad, all processing steps must be completed before the end of the relevant fiscal year (September 30), or your winning entry goes up in smoke.

This is true even if the processing delay is no fault of yours—and even if the U.S. government itself is entirely responsible for the delay. Winners have become losers under this rule, for example, when the FBI failed to do the required fingerprint checks in time, or when a U.S. embassy failed to provide a timely interview date.

People have gone to court to challenge such outcomes, but though an occasional judge will express dismay, the courts ultimately conclude that the rule is clear and represents the intent of Congress and must be upheld.

Getting Legal Help

Winning the diversity visa (DV) lottery can change lives. Enter the lottery if you want to live in the U.S. and you meet the basic eligibility requirements. In fact, enter it every year.

But realize that winners can become losers under the DV lottery rules. Educate yourself thoroughly if your lottery entry is selected, and act quickly to follow up. Strongly consider consulting an experienced immigration lawyer to help you analyze your green card eligibility and decide on the best, and fastest, processing route. Understand that you might not get a green card even if you do everything right, and plan accordingly.

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