20,000 U.S. visa lottery winners suing government after applications not processed

More than 20,000 people who won the U.S. visa lottery are suing the government after their applications were never processed, the Associated Press reported.More than 20,000 winners of the U.S. visa lottery are suing the government after their applications were never processed. This July 31, 2014, file photo shows Russian, U.S., Spanish and British passports together with visa application forms.

The winners had turned in the required paperwork, but they never received an interview or a chance at coming to the United States as the State Department struggled to process the applications amid a backlog caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A State Department official said the pandemic led to “profound reductions” in the department’s ability to process visas, and only about one-quarter of the visas allotted for the fiscal year ending in September have been issued.

Processing halted altogether during the pandemic, then resumed at a much slower pace, with non-lottery visa applications receiving priority, attorneys for the lottery winners said.

Dorisnelly Fuentes Matos may have won the U.S. visa lottery on paper, but she still isn't close to reaching the United States. In this Sept. 23, 2021, photo provided by Marcos Antonio Portal Quintero, shows Cuban economics student Dorisnelly Fuentes Matos, 27, second from left, with a group of Cuban citizens outside the U.S. embassy in Georgetown, Guyana. Marcos Antonio Portal Quintero via APDorisnelly Fuentes Matos may have won the U.S. visa lottery on paper, but she still isn’t close to reaching the United States.

The 27-year-old Cuban economics student was notified more than a year ago that she won a coveted spot to seek one of up to 55,000 visas that the U.S. government gives out each year in a lottery to increase the country’s diversity. She filed the paperwork to a State Department processing center in Kentucky and waited to be scheduled for an interview at the U.S. embassy in Guyana, which handles Cubans’ visa applications.

But the interview never came. Now, the visas are set to expire Thursday, leaving her and her husband in limbo.

“We are desperate, asking for someone to help us because we are here in the middle of nowhere,” said Fuentes Matos, who is waiting in Guyana for an appointment and is one of thousands suing the U.S. government over the delays. “We are stuck in this country, and we can’t even go back to Cuba.”

While embassies and consulates have been instructed to try to prioritize the lottery cases, the U.S. likely won’t issue the number of visas it could for the soon-to-be-ending fiscal year, the official said.

That is what worries Fuentes Matos. As the deadline approached for visas to be issued, she grew nervous she would be asked to quickly attend a meeting with a U.S. consular officer in Guyana. So she and her husband gave up their jobs, sold their home and bought plane tickets to travel a circuitous route via Spain and Panama to Georgetown, where they have been staying in a hostel and waiting for the interview that still hasn’t come.

Winning the lottery is already a stretch. Millions of people sign up each year, and only up to 55,000 visas are awarded. The chance of getting a winning ticket is infinitesimal, and from there, they must wait in a line for a consular interview. Even in a typical year, not everyone will get one before the U.S. runs out of visas for the year.

For years, the U.S. was largely issuing the diversity visas that were allotted, with most going to people from Africa and Europe. After the pandemic hit, the Trump administration put a freeze on many green cards issued outside of the United States, including these visas. Some of the affected lottery applicants sued, and a federal judge last year ordered the administration to reserve 9,000 diversity visas into the next year.

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