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Trump's COVID-19 Visa Bans Hit Hard For Diversity Visa Lottery Recipients

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Millions of immigrants apply for a chance at getting a U.S. green card through the annual diversity visa lottery. Some apply year after year. The pandemic threw a wrench into the processing of those visas this year, and then the Trump Administration stopped issuing them altogether. Shannon Dooling from member station WBUR has this report.

SHANNON DOOLING, BYLINE: Five years in a row, Katia Karslidi has applied for a diversity visa. Finally, this year, her persistence paid off, and she was randomly selected in the lottery.

KATIA KARSLIDI: It's like a dream come true because it's such a small odds.

DOOLING: The writer and LGBTQ activist from Russia was on target to complete the vetting process and get her green card by the September 30 deadline. She was even reaching out to prospective employers in New York when she sent an email to a U.S. consular office last month asking for an update.

KARSLIDI: They sent me with automatic reply. Thank you for your inquiry. Due to novel COVID-19 outbreak, all interviews in the diversity visa program have been suspended. And that's basically it.

DOOLING: Karslidi is not alone. Of the 55,000 lottery winners, about 42,000 haven't been able to complete the process, which includes consular interviews and background checks. Now that the program has essentially been shut down, they're all out of luck, and immigrants like Karslidi are doubly incredulous, both at being selected and then at losing their spot.

KARSLIDI: It's not only, like, our chance to live in a better country. It's America's chance to have a lot of talented people from around the world to benefit country. And Trump just taking away this opportunity.

DOOLING: President Trump opposes the diversity visa program and often mocks it at campaign rallies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Think of this. You think they're going to put their great citizens - they have great citizens. They have great people like we have great people. Do you think those people are going into a lottery? No.

DOOLING: This year, the program slowed to a crawl when U.S. consulates and embassies closed because of the pandemic. Then President Trump dealt another blow, banning diversity visas and many foreign worker visas from being issued. Last month, he extended the ban through the end of the year. Trump says he's trying to preserve American jobs, but Danilo Zak, a policy associate at the National Immigration Forum, says Trump is using coronavirus as an excuse.

DANILO ZAK: I think absolutely, this is an example of the administration using the pandemic in a way to further goals that it's had a long time relating to the elimination of the diversity visa program.

DOOLING: The diversity visa program is designed to attract immigrants from countries traditionally underrepresented in the U.S. Applicants must meet educational requirements and can't have criminal records. Once they're here, Zak says, these immigrants tend to find success. Mahmoud (ph), an Egyptian accountant who grew up in the United Arab Emirates, has applied every year for 15 years. This year, he finally won.

MAHMOUD: So the reason I'm chasing this dream - I don't think it's just me or, like, everybody around the world is applying for the program because, you know, they believe the U.S. is the greatest nation.

DOOLING: We agreed to use only Mahmoud's middle name because he doesn't want to hurt his chances if the situation changes. Immigrant advocates are calling on Congress to extend the diversity visa processing deadline. They're also suing to overturn Trump's temporary ban on these visas.

MAHMOUD: We thought it's going to be a temporary problem, but it turned out to be that, you know, based on the current situation right now, like, this opportunity is gone forever.

DOOLING: As it is now, Mahmoud's only choice would be to put his name in the lottery again next year, but he says that's unlikely. He just can't take the disappointment again. For NPR News, I'm Shannon Dooling. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.