By JULIE WATSON | The Associated Press
SAN DIEGO — A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the Trump administration to save more than 9,000 U.S. slots for visa lottery winners affected by the government’s freeze on green cards earlier this year. But tens of thousands of other visa lottery winners will be out of luck.
U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta acknowledged that his order will mean only about half of the so-called diversity visas issued normally each year will be used. He said in his ruling that he gave the State Department leniency due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mehta rejected a request by lawyers to order 30,000 slots be saved for people who won the lottery but hadn’t yet been vetted. With about 15,400 visas issued so far in the 2020 fiscal year that ended Wednesday, the additional 30,000 sought by advocates for the lottery winners would have brought the total close to the annual average of 47,404 over the previous 18 years.
The judge said that the impact of COVID-19 on the State Department’s processing capacity needed to be taken into account, bringing him to order a total of 9,095 slots be saved.
“The problem with Plaintiffs’ proposed number is that it asks the court to treat FY 2020 as if it were an ‘average’ year. But, to state the obvious, it has been anything but average,” Mehta wrote in his ruling. “The COVID-19 pandemic has caused worldwide operational disruptions of the State Department’s consular and visa processing operations.”
The United States makes available up to 55,000 visas a year for immigrants whose nationalities are underrepresented in the U.S. population.
The winners are randomly chosen from a pool of about 14 million applicants to be given green cards that would let them live permanently in the United States.
But the winners must be vetted and have the visas in hand by Sept. 30 of the year they were chosen or they lose out.
This year, the State Department had issued little more than 12,000 visas for the 2020 lottery when President Donald Trump in April extended a freeze on many green cards issued outside the United States to the end of the year, including the lottery’s visas.
On Sept. 4, Mehta ordered the State Department to resume issuing the visas ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline, partially reversing the freeze.
On Wednesday, the judge ordered the State Department to put on hold 9,095 winning visa lottery numbers past the deadline so they can be processed pending a final judgement.
Rafael Urena, who is representing more than 1,000 visa lottery winners, said the order sends a lifeline to the group.
“The Diversity Visa program has been the United States’ beacon of hope to the world for 30 years,” he said. “To see it unlawfully dismantled by the Trump administration was a tragedy. Today’s order gives hope to many of the plaintiffs that the American dream continues.”
U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Thomas York did not immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press requesting comment about Wednesday’s order.
The administration said it halted the issuance of green cards to free up jobs in the coronavirus-wrecked economy — a reason the president has used to achieve many of the cuts to legal immigration that eluded him before the pandemic. The freeze also applies to people seeking temporary work visas at high-tech companies, summer camps and multinational corporations.
Trump has long sought to scrap the diversity visa lottery, saying it brings “the worst of the worst.”
Mehta, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, made clear in his Sept. 4 ruling that he disagreed with Trump’s characterizations.
“Diversity visa lottery winners are people who have come to this nation, like millions before, to seek a better life for themselves and their families, and to pursue the American Dream,” he wrote. “They do not deserve to be caricatured as common criminals, or to be used as a political wedge issue.”
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.
Associated Press reporter Elliot Spagat contributed to this report.