CAIRO – Noha, an Egyptian engineer, should feel lucky after winning a visa lottery that randomly selects people from a pool of more than 14 million applications for about 55,000 green cards that would let them live permanently in the United States.
But the hopes she and her husband had of moving with their two children to New York vanished last week when President Donald Trump extended a ban on many green cards issued outside the United States to the end of the year, including the lottery's “diversity visas,” which have been issued every year since 1990 to people from underrepresented countries.
This year’s recipients learned of their good fortune about a year ago, but many had not yet completed the vetting process when American consulates closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now the administration’s latest step to reduce legal immigration has upended their lives, and many find themselves stuck in a worse situation than the one they were trying to escape.
The lottery requires that green cards be obtained by Sept. 30 or they will be voided. The State Department says no exceptions are made for those who do not yet have one in hand.
Noha and her children got their visas in February. But her husband, Ahmed, is still waiting, and the family fears his visa will never come.
The situation forces Noha to make an impossible choice between going alone to New York to seek a better life for the couple's 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, or giving up that dream so the family can stay together. She said she felt angry and cried for days after learning of Trump’s order.
“All my plans were collapsed in an instant," said Noha, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used for fear that speaking publicly could hurt her family’s case. “I felt that all what we have achieved went for nothing.”
Trump’s decision to extend the ban marked the first time the visa program has been interrupted since it was created to attract immigrants from diverse backgrounds. U.S. immigration lawyers are considering challenging the move in court.
Only about 13,000 of the roughly 55,000 lottery visas have been issued so far this year, said Simon Paul, a diversity visa recipient who now runs a blog helping other immigrants at britsimon.com. Even those who obtained a visa have found it tough to get to the U.S. because of pandemic travel restrictions.
Noha's family spent nearly $10,000 on the vetting process.
After being told by a U.S. official in February that the entire family was approved, the couple started making plans for their new life. Noha and her husband, also an engineer, resigned from their jobs, sold their car, notified their landlord they were moving and stopped paying tuition at their children's school for next year.
The embassy in May told her husband his visa just needed to be printed, so “we even packed our bags," she said. Her kids watched videos on YouTube about life in the U.S.
The administration put the hold on the visas as part of efforts to free up jobs in the coronavirus-wracked economy — a reason the president has used to achieve many of the cuts to legal immigration that eluded him before the pandemic. The president's move also applies to other green-card applicants and to people seeking temporary work visas at high-tech companies, summer camps and multinational corporations.
Long before the pandemic, Trump criticized the lottery, falsely claiming it has been “a horror show" because countries put in “some very bad people.”
The U.S. government runs the program, and citizens of qualifying countries are the ones who decide to bid for the visas. Foreign governments do not choose who applies or ultimately receives a visa.
Applicants must have graduated from high school or have two years of experience in a selection of fields identified by the U.S. Labor Department. The winners cannot have a criminal record, and they must have a U.S. sponsor willing and able to support them until they get established. More than 80,000 applicants were named winners so they had to race against each other to get the visas made available.
Dozens of the 2020 winners reached out to The Associated Press in response to a request to tell their stories. Many are highly educated but hindered by the lack of opportunities in their homelands.
Among those selected this year were an infectious disease doctor, an agricultural engineer, a software developer, a post-doctorate researcher, a businesswoman and a middle school teacher. They come from Egypt, Turkey, and Albania, among other countries.
Mahmoud Elrweny, who works as a production manager at the Hershey Co. in Memphis Tennessee, said he was elated when he heard the lottery had awarded visas that would let his brother join him in the U.S.
Egypt's high unemployment had forced his brother to move to Saudi Arabia, where he was teaching, though he did not want to stay because he has two daughters and felt they would be restricted as women.
His brother had to do the visa interview in his native country. Five days after he got to Egypt, the U.S. embassy canceled it, and then Trump issued the order. His Saudi school fired him for leaving and refused to give him his last paycheck. Saudi Arabia canceled his visa to go back. He also left his car there.
He and his wife are now both unemployed in Egypt, living with family.
Elrweny wants to help him but doesn't know how.
“I’m really stressed out and depressed," he said. “His dream was to come to America."
The lottery changed Alma Mandija's life in 1997, when her homeland of Albania was gripped by civil unrest that resulted in the toppling of the government and the deaths of more than 2,000 people.
“It was very unsafe,” she said. The visa allowed her to go to college. She went on to become an immigration lawyer in New York.
Her cousin, Eldis Bushati, was among this year's lottery winners after trying for 16 years. Mandija and her parents agreed to support him, his wife and 3-year-old daughter and found several companies in New York that expressed interest in hiring him as a plumber.
Bushati, 31, was waiting for U.S. officials to email him his interview date when Trump ordered the ban. He is still holding out hope.
“Time will pass soon. The virus will be away, and we shall end this process and be in America soon," he said.
Nataly Savenkova, 27, who works at the Russian branch of an American bank, is not banking on anything. She got her green card in January and decided to move to the U.S. even though her husband has not received his visa yet.
The couple had hoped to build a "new and exciting future together." But now her “big luck and happiness appeared to be a total disaster,” Savenkova wrote in an email to the AP.
Noha had similar aspirations for her family.
“All this was for the future of our children," she said, fighting back tears as she talked outside her home in Cairo. ““Now we do not know what to do."
Watson reported from San Diego. Associated Press Writer Llazar Semini in Albania contributed to this report.