In 2016, Belqees Al-Doais won a lottery that she was sure would change her life: the chance at a visa to come to the United States.
She was in her fourth year of university, living in Yemen, a newlywed and soon to be pregnant when she found out she won the US Diversity Visa Lottery, also known as “The Green Card Lottery.” It seemed Al-Doais had beaten the odds – 12.4 million applicants applied for a chance at the up to 50,000 visas that could be issued for 2017.
But in 2017, then-President Donald Trump took a series of actions aimed at barring individuals from Muslim-majority countries from coming to the United States. The one that was ultimately allowed to take effect – Presidential Proclamation 9645 – placed varying levels of restrictions on foreign nationals from eight countries: Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Somalia and Yemen.
The path to a new life in the US for diversity visa lottery recipients like her seemed all but blocked. Although she said she was not refused under the executive order, she was not able to obtain her green card before time lapsed.
“After our dreams of traveling to the US were shattered, everything completely changed and was destroyed in my view,” Al-Doais told CNN. “The simplest way to describe my life currently is that it is a nightmare.”
Now, four years later, with the restrictions struck down by President Joe Biden, Al-Doais and other diversity visa recipients hope that they might once again have the chance to resettle in the United States.
The diversity visa program was established as part of the Immigration Act of 1990 in order to promote immigration from countries with fewer individuals coming to the United States.
“It provides an opportunity for individuals to come into the US that typically won’t have any other avenue to getting here,” Abed Ayoub, the policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told CNN.
Millions enter the lottery each year; only a fraction are chosen.
Al-Doais said that winning the visa lottery “was among the greatest moments of (her) life.”
“It was a decisive moment that was full of happiness,” she told CNN.
The winners of the lottery are able to apply for visas to the United States – a process that can be extremely costly and challenging.
Ayoub said that among the diversity lottery winners with whom he works, it is common that “they’ve accrued a significant amount of debt” in trying to obtain their green cards.
Al-Doais and her family sold their furniture and jewelry and borrowed thousands of dollars. Because the US does not currently have an embassy in Yemen, she said they traveled thousands of miles to Malaysia to interview for the visas. Al-Doais said shortly after her interview, she received an email from the embassy informing her that her visa was ready to be issued, but her husband’s visa was being processed. She ran into a series of problems with actually obtaining the visa, and before she could, her window of opportunity expired.
She now lives in Istanbul with her three-year-old daughter, Sidra. Her husband fled by foot to Europe a year and a half ago to seek work; he’s now in a refugee camp in Serbia.
“My husband is not with me. I am psychologically destroyed. I am really lost; I don’t know what to do or what will happen to me in the future,” she told CNN.
Ahmed, a Syrian diversity lottery winner, said he was asked to interview at the US Embassy in Jordan in 2019, as the US Embassy in Syria suspended operations in 2012. CNN is only using his first name for his safety. Ahmed said he went into debt paying fees and travel costs.
Although he knew that Trump’s ban was in place, Ahmed said he was willing to gamble on the even smallest chance that he could get out of Syria.
“If there is even a one percent chance I have to get out of this country that has literally destroyed me as a young man with ambition and hope for a better life, I would take it,” he said.
He told CNN that he was told by a consular officer that his visa application was denied because of the presidential proclamation, and that he did not qualify for an exemption.
According to State Department data, tens of thousands of applicants for immigrant visas – including diversity visa applicants – were refused visas in fiscal years 2017, 2018 and 2019 under the Trump administration’s policy.
‘Right that wrong’
Ayoub of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee told CNN, “the prior administration could have said we’re not providing these visas because of the ban.”
“But they didn’t do that. They did provide that hope. And now it’s the responsibility of this current administration to right that wrong and provide them an opportunity to come into the US,” he said.
On his first day as president, Biden issued a new presidential proclamation – “Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to the United States” – that ended the restrictions under Presidential Proclamation 9645.
“Pursuant to President Biden’s proclamation, the State Department will undertake a review to ensure that individuals whose immigrant visa applications were denied on the basis of the suspension and restriction on entry imposed by P.P. 9645 or 9983 may have their applications reconsidered,” the department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, which handles visas, says on its website.
“This review will consider whether to reopen immigrant visa applications that were denied due to the suspension and restriction on entry imposed by P.P. 9645 or 9983; whether it is necessary to charge an additional fee to process those visa applications; and development of a plan to expedite consideration of those visa applications,” it says.
On Wednesday, Biden also revoked another Trump-era executive order that temporarily banned some immigrant visas during the coronavirus pandemic
On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that “diversity visa recipients holding valid and unexpired visas may now seek immediate entry into the United States as they are covered by a blanket national interest exception.”
However, under current law, most of those who were not able to obtain visas before their window lapsed or who have visas that expired will have to start over from scratch.
Pending the State Department’s review, applicants who were refused because of the Trump’s PP 9645 and did not qualify for a waiver before January 20, 2020 “must submit a new visa application … and pay a new visa application processing fee,” the consular affairs website says.
Al-Doais and Ahmed are hopeful that changes in policy will give them another chance at green cards.
“I hope from President Biden, his administration, and the State Department that they would return to us our rights, me and all those who won the lottery, since 2017, because, really, we are living in a truly tragic condition,” Al-Doais told CNN.
“I’m ready to do anything to get out of this hell,” Ahmed said.