A one in a million chance at a better life: will the US green card lottery survive?

The program, based on random selection, doesn’t require sponsorship, employment, or family in the US – making it a target for elimination as Donald Trump focuses on a policy of ‘hiring American’

Getting “randomly selected” by the US state department would usually strike fear in the heart of foreigners. But on Tuesday, more than 100,000 people around the world will be chosen for the state department’s diversity immigrant visa program, also known as the green card lottery.

The prize? A golden ticket to the land of the free, and the possibility of a new life.

The green card lottery is a uniquely American proposition. Every year, 50,000 people win the chance to become permanent residents simply by filling out an online form in the fall. The process is random, and names are simply drawn out of millions of entries.

You don’t need to be sponsored, you don’t need family in the US, you don’t need employment. You do not need to fill out dozens of forms, get a medical exam or be closely vetted to apply (although you will face such requirements if you’re selected). Not everyone is eligible, however: citizens of countries that have had 50,000 green cards awarded in the last five years – including the UK, Mexico, Canada, China, India and Brazil – cannot apply.

Radovan Serbula, who came from Croatia in 1997 with his wife and young son after winning the green card lottery, says it was not an easy decision. “We didn’t know anybody in the US – no friends, no family,” he said. “We moved over here with no job, no English, nothing. But we decided to go and give it a shot.”

He left a successful career as an international basketball coach behind and, upon arrival in the US, earned $6 an hour working in the stockroom of a toy store in Boston. His first paycheck for a week of full-time work wasn’t enough to cover his rent, so Serbula started working nights as a parking valet, stuffing tips in his pockets.

Two decades on, he owns a personal training studio which employs six workers – the classic tale of an immigrant who chased the American dream.

Stories like Serbula’s, however, might soon become rarer. Two different bills, one in the US Senate and one in the House of Representatives, are attempting to get rid of the diversity lottery. Donald Trump has promised to tighten immigration policies and focus on “hiring American”, making it harder for foreigners to enter the US. Dumping a program that lets 50,000 randomly chosen people come and live here might be an obvious decision in the eyes of his supporters.

Even some Democrats, including the New York senator Chuck Schumer, have called for it to be abandoned, seeing it as an easy concession to Republicans in exchange for protecting Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children.

This raises the question: does the green card lottery still have a role to play in American life? Or is it an indulgence that should be discarded?


I’ll admit, my interest in the green card lottery isn’t purely journalistic. Politics is always personal, and my name is entered in this year’s green card lottery (the fifth or sixth time I’ve applied – I have lost count).

Amber Jamieson’s photograph, which she issues to enter the green card lottery.
Amber Jamieson’s photograph, which she has issued to enter the green card lottery. Photograph: Amber Jamieson

Luckily for me, it’s pretty easy for Australians to work in the US, but a green card would help my employment prospects and also stop the waves of anxiety every time I have to enter the country or await a visa appointment.

And so every October, I get a photo taken professionally, out of fear that I’ll stuff up the strict requirements if I snap it myself. I type out the basic details of my life – name, date of birth, city of birth, nationality, level of education – upload the photo, hit the enter button and cross my fingers.

And on 2 May, I and millions of others around the world (there were 9,388,986 applications in 2015) will log on to the state department website, type in our ID numbers and see if we’ve been “randomly selected” to become future green card holders.


The existence of the program is partly due to the luck of the Irish.

“The Irish were basically screwed from emigrating to America,” said Brian J Donnelly, a former congressman from Massachusetts who created the first green card lottery, in 1986.

The 1965 Immigration Act had put the focus of immigration policy on skilled workers and family sponsorship visas, meaning green cards were mainly being allocated to just a handful of countries – Mexico, India, China and the Philippines.

Donnelly represented thousands of undocumented Irish immigrants living in Boston after a resurgence in Irish immigration in the late 1980s.

In the past, US immigration policy had discriminated against people from Asia; now, those from western Europe and Africa had limited immigration options, explained Donnelly.

“It’s just a matter of fairness. No one area of the world should have access to the American dream at the expense of others,” said Donnelly, who served as a Democratic US congressman from 1979 to 1993.

“A lottery would be the fairest way, no favoritism. We literally couldn’t think of a fairer way to do it,” said Donnelly.

Of course, there were teething problems. In 1986, authorities provided 10,000 visas, and 40% went to Irish immigrants because the policy was first come, first served. The state department were overwhelmed with mail, particularly because people applied multiple times.

“It really never worked. I’m actually surprised it hasn’t already been repealed,” said Donnelly, who noted that the program did little to diversify the incoming population because the 50,000 lottery winners make up only a tiny part the nation’s entire immigration intake. For example, in 2015, about 550,000 people emigrated to the US, and 11 million temporary visas – including work and student visas – were given out.

“Frankly, I can’t see it surviving into the future. I think America is going to move to a more needs-based immigration system. And this system is just random.”

But there’s beauty in randomness.

“We should never go away from our tradition of allowing people in regardless of whether they’re rich or poor or smart or dumb,” said Donnelly, whose grandparents were Irish immigrants. “My ancestors weren’t skilled workers, I can tell you. And their grandson grew up to a be a congressman and a US ambassador.”


While the numbers may seem insignificant, the diversity lottery has increased immigration from African countries. More people from Ghana applied for the green card lottery in 2015 than any other country (in fact, 1.7 million people – or 7% of Ghana’s population – applied, largely due to the country’s economic instability).

While the numbers may seem insignificant, the diversity lottery has increased immigration from African countries.
While the numbers may seem insignificant, the diversity lottery has increased immigration from African countries. Photograph: leekris/Getty Images/iStockphoto

“People think the US is a quick gateway to a successful life,” Ghanaian Andrew Bayor, 33, told me via WhatsApp. He’s a specialist in IT and communications in developing countries, and had hoped to go to the US to study after completing his graduate degree in Ghana. He saw a green card as the easiest way to do that – and possibly a way to increase his chance at scholarships.

He applied every year from 2007 to 2012 before giving up.

“I think most people in Africa are well aware of the well-known ‘American dream’. In this dream, people like me find quality education as a path to success. Others think about making good money as jobs are readily available in the US,” he said. Plus, thanks to a low exchange rate, “with a few thousand [US] dollars, you can start a big business in Ghana and become successful”, he added, noting that Ghanaians who emigrate are expected to send money to family back home.

But Bayor, like millions of others in Ghana, didn’t win the green card lottery. He was disappointed at first, and then he decided to look elsewhere for success – first getting a master’s degree in the UK, then working in China. He is now off to Australia for further studies.

“What I can say is that God has been good to me and I don’t think life could have been better than it is if I had won the lottery and emigrated to the US. I wanted quality education in the US – well, I did not get that from the US but I got it from the UK,” said Bayor.

Others aren’t ready to give up on the dream.

Ismahen Poirel, a 21-year-old French chef, is effusive in her adoration of the US and desperate to win a green card. In 2014 and 2015, she worked in a country club in Connecticut as part of her French culinary school studies.

“I felt like I finally belonged somewhere. I loved everything about it, the language, the work ethic, the way people think and their kindness, the way everything seems to be possible if you work hard for it, or also the way you can dress however you want and you don’t feel judged,” she said via text.

“I know it is the place where I want to start my life. I don’t feel like I belong anywhere else. It might sound stupid, but in my own home town I’m just so, so unhappy. And all I can think about it finding a way to finally move to this country I love so much,” added Poirel, who is from Reims, the home of champagne.


But not everyone who enters her name into a website is ready to pledge support for Uncle Sam.

Australian Elle Ross, 26, spent 2013 to 2014 interning in New York and “despised” it by the end, the winter too cold and Americans’ inability to understand her cultural references too frustrating.

But upon her return to Melbourne, she felt like “a little lost lamb” and decided to enter the lottery on a whim. In early 2015, she won.

Australians entering the lottery, according to one visa website, had a 5% chance of getting selected in 2013, making it one of the five easiest countries to win the lottery.

In 2015, 1,798 Aussies nabbed a green card.

“People congratulate me all the time. I didn’t actually do anything. This isn’t a big achievement, it’s lucky,” said Ross, who runs a small gallery.

She has spent hundreds of dollars getting her green card processed – medical checks, flights to the consulate in Sydney, visa costs – and thousands more on two short trips to Los Angeles. On her last visit, for three weeks in February, US border authorities told her she had to move to the US soon or she’d lose the green card.

She plans to move to Los Angeles next year, after she finishes her graduate studies, although she seems ambivalent about it.

“There’s also a peer pressure to take it. Everyone’s got their opinions, telling me: ‘You’d be crazy not to go,’” said Ross.

Except, as Ozlem Erol and her family realized, coming “home” isn’t easy either.

She and her husband had a comfortable life in Turkey before they won the lottery on their second try, in 1997, when their son, Hakan, was three. After visiting public schools in the US, they decided that Hakan would be able to attend them and still get into a good college, something considered impossible in their circles in Turkey.

They moved to the US in 1999, but after struggling to find good jobs by the end of the first year, returned to Istanbul. Five months later, however, they were back in California, determined to give it another go and not waste their green cards.

Eighteen years later, Hakan is about to graduate with a computer science degree from the University of Southern California and both Ozlem, 50, and her husband, Bulent, 52, run their own businesses.

“We didn’t have to flee our country, nothing major, but the biggest force was to live in a civilised country and to give our son a better future,” she explained.


Being “welcoming” to all immigrants is no longer popular with politicians nor much of the public.

“It’s one of the most divisive issues in society,” said Jeffrey Sachs, a university professor at Columbia University in economics and sustainable development and author of Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair & Sustainable.

Vicious debate over immigration policies is now “common to Europe and the United States and one of the main reasons is [that] since the mid-1960s, the foreign-born population has increased from 5% to 15%. That’s a large increase, of mainly Hispanic immigration, and it has led to a backlash,” said Sachs.

One key problem with immigration policy is that there’s no broad international agreement on migration law, although the UN is now working on a global process to come up with a set of agreed principles by 2019.

Sachs commends Canada for its immigration policy, saying it maintains a balance of skilled and unskilled workers, family reunification visas and refugees, with clear guidelines.

“We should have openness to many types of people to many regions around the world. We should not be in the business of just encouraging a brain drain from poorer countries. When we attract skilled workers from very poor countries, we may be doing nobody a favor,” he said.


It might be weird to see one small piece of government policy as a reflection of American inclusiveness, but that’s how I see the green card lottery.

Maybe that partly comes from living in New York City, where the cliched lyrics of “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” are drilled into the brains of the many hopefuls who flock here, despite the high rent and the miserable winters.

But Andy J Semotiuk, a US and Canadian immigration attorney based in New York, offers another reason to embrace the program: he’s only worked with a handful of green-card lottery winners because, he says, most just do it themselves without legal help.

“This is the only instance where an average Joe, housewife or a mechanic, just an ordinary person – not a PhD holder, not a Harvard professor, not an engineer – could apply. And that continues to be the beauty of it,” he said.

“Nowhere else are you going to find ordinary people, from different parts of the world, feeding the American melting pot and enriching the lives of Americans in the way this program does.”


Amber Jamieson

The GuardianTramp

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