MAY 2002
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Tougher Odds

By Chaleampon Ritthichai

It has been more than five years since his student visa expired but Dybu (who did not want to have his last name used) remains living and working illegally in the United States. With a hope to stay and work in New York City as a legal resident, Dybu participates in a visa lottery program.

"It’s the only way I can see myself out of this legal limbo."said the 30-year-old immigrant from Mali, a small French speaking country in West Africa.

His chance is small. Each year more than six million people apply for the 50,000 coveted visas. Now there is another obstacle: he is a Muslim.

According to the State Department, extensive security checks since September 11 have created a delay in getting visa approval and might increase rejection rates for prospective immigrants from Muslim countries.

Created in the Immigration and Naturalizations Act of 1990, the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, or Visa Lottery, is aimed at increasing the number of permanent residence visas, commonly known as green cards, from regions of world that normally receive disproportionately small numbers.

Yamina Amrani, an immigrant attorney who is also a Muslim, said that 9/11 has affected good Muslims all over the world. "Winning the lottery visa does not necessarily mean you can get green card right way. You must pass a security check, among other things. Now it’s even harder for people from Muslim countries."

The State Department issued visa approvals to 16,308 lottery winners worldwide from October 1 2000 to Feburuary 28 2001, according to official figures. But for the same period a year later, the number approved was only 14,074- a decline of 2,234 or about 14 percent.

A state Department official said almost all of that was the result of lower numbers from Muslim countries, even though all of the dozens of predominantly Muslim countries–except Pakistan–are eligible to participate. (Pakistan already has a large number of people who immigrate to America.)

In New York City the Muslim groups who benefited the most from the lottery visa program were from Bangladesh and Egypt, according to the city planning report.

The program is also credited with the revitalization of several New York City neighborhoods including Sunnyside Queens where many Muslim immigrants live.

"I’ve been living here for years. I can tell you now it’s not a good time to be a Muslim in America," said Sabur (who did not want to have his last name used) an immigrant from Bangladesh who also applied for the visa lottery. "This is my fourth year of trying. I don’t think I’ll ever get it."

For many illegal immigrants like Dybu and Sabur, getting a green card would not only mean the opportunity to work legally, usually at a better wages, but it would allow them to bring their spouses and children to the United States.

"If I have a green card I can go home without fear of being turned back when I try to come back to America. I haven’t seen my kid in years," said Dybu who has applied for the visa lottery every year since 1997.

The winners were chosen by a random computer-generated drawing following the mail-in period from October 1 to October 31 of last year.

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