’Golden Ticket’: Diversity Visa Recipients Say Lottery Is Life-Changing

110217 diversity visa recipients 3 pics option 2
Courtesy of Angelea Melotto, Sam Clark and Angela and Paulo Melotto; Sam Clark and Darakshan Raja

Following this week's terrorist attack in New York, President Donald Trump is demanding a swift repeal of the immigration program that brought the accused assailant to the United States from Uzbekistan seven years ago. 

"I am calling on Congress to TERMINATE the diversity visa lottery program that presents significant vulnerabilities to our national security," Trump tweeted Thursday afternoon, after earlier criticizing the vetting process.

But those who obtained legal status through the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, also known as the green card lottery, say it provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a better life and contributes to the country's proverbial melting pot.

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They aren't refugees, don't have family members already in the U.S. or an employer to sponsor them, and the lottery is their only way to gain legal status and a path to citizenship.

NBC spoke with four diversity visa recipients to learn about their journey to attain legal status and how winning the lottery changed their lives. 

Angela and Paulo Melotto, of São Paulo, Brazil
The Melottos learned of the green card lottery program from Angela Melotto's sister, who already had lived in the U.S. for 20 years. She encouraged her sibling to enter the lottery.

The family started a "very long, complex" process in 1998 and answered a series of "very personal questions," Angela's husband, Paulo Melotto, said. They submitted bank, medical, education and employment records.

Courtesy of Angela and Paulo Melotto

A year after they applied, they received a packet in 1999 saying they had been approved for the lottery and could continue through the next phase of the process.

"That packet sat on top of our TV for about a month before we finally opened it," said Paulo Melotto, who worked at a Delphi automotive parts factory in Piracicaba, Sao Paulo, at the time. "We didn't know what it was and we didn’t speak any English. My sister-in-law came over one day and saw it. She said 'it's from immigration,' opened it and translated it for us. That's how we learned we got approved."

There were also more forms to fill out, they were interviewed individually at the U.S. consulate in Rio de Janeiro and they traveled three hours from their home in Piracicaba to get medical exams at a U.S.-approved clinic.

Finally, in 2000 they headed to the U.S.

"It was a big change for us. Right before I came to the U.S., I had just passed a test to go work at Delphi's Technology Center. The move to America meant a step down in my career — I'm a laborer now," Paulo Melotto, 52, said. "But for Angela, who worked part-time cashier jobs here and there, and for my daughter, who was 10 at the time, there would be more opportunity. We weighed it out and coming was the best decision we could have made."

Paulo Melotto, 52, works in road construction and Angela Melotto, 50, in the cafeteria of a law firm. They live in Kearny, New Jersey.

"This country gave me something I didn’t have in Brazil: faith in the security of my future," Paulo said. "We work a lot, but we also see the fruits of our labor. In America, you can eat well, live well and dress well. You can buy a house and send your kid to college. There's not a lot of upward mobility in Brazil, and these things are hard to attain if you're not wealthy."

The Melottos' 29-year-old daughter, Carol, graduated in 2011 from St. Peter’s University in New Jersey with a double major. That milestone alone made the decision to come the U.S. "priceless." Paulo said though his daughter would have probably gone to "some college" in Brazil, it wouldn’t have been easy.

"The American school systems gave her so much," he said. "The access we have here to a good education we don't have in Brazil for free."

Angela Melotto said she hoped Congress would not cut the diversity visa program because it's how accused terror suspect Sayfullo Saipov entered the U.S.

"That’s crazy and illogical. People can change over time," she said. "This guy might not have always been this way, and to cut off people who can benefit from the program because of one man's actions isn’t a reasonable response."

The family become naturalized citizens several years ago and have no plans to return to Brazil to live. Asked about what he likes most about living in the U.S., Paulo said: "This country's strong sense of patriotism."

Darakshan Raja, of Rawalpandi, Pakistan
Darakshan Raja moved from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, to the U.S. as a child after her mother won the diversity visa lottery. Her mother worked as an English professor, and a colleague entered her name.

Raja, now 29, said she remembers the day, at age 6, when she learned her family of four would move.

"Someone pulled up a map and said, 'This is where you're going to be going,'" she recalled.

Courtesy of Darakshan Raja

Raja's family submitted their birth certificates, educational records going back to elementary school and full medical histories, and they each took multiple tests in English, she said. She said she still has six folders full of the documents, which her mother kept.

As part of the process, an official asked 6-year-old Raja about systems of government, she recalled.

"They asked, 'Do you believe in communism or do you believe in democracy? I hadn't even heard those terms," she said.

Her family moved to New York in 1995.

Darakshan Raja

Raja, who now works in Washington, D.C. as an advocate for the civil rights of Muslims, said she's thankful for her ability to shape her own life in the U.S. In many ways, winning the visa lottery is like winning a "golden ticket," she said.

"The person I am and the work that I do, I think I only could have done it in America," she said. "I would have had a very difficult, different life in Pakistan. I don't know if I would have had the same opportunity to direct my own destiny."

However, she spoke against the discrimination and humiliation her mother and late father faced because they were immigrants and Muslims.

"We came into a system that totally rejects our immigrant, our Muslim, our Pakistani identities and sees those as a threat," she said.

Raja said she did not believe ending the diversity visa program would make Americans safer.

"This is a way of taking legal methods of immigrating to the U.S. away, especially for Muslims," she said.

Sam Clark, of Brisbane, Australia
Sam Clark of Brisbane, Australia, applied for a diversity visa for years, starting in his early 20s. Year after year, he was rejected. Then, after at least four tries, he got an email saying he had been selected for further processing. That email changed his life.

Clark moved in 2012, at age 28, to New York, where he dreamed of working as an actor. And he did.

"I feel like I can be my best self here," he said. "There's something unique about being an immigrant. You get to pick how you live your life, rather than just having it kind of chosen for you."

Courtesy of Sam Clark

Despite his long wait to win the lottery, Clark said he didn't find the diversity visa application process particularly onerous. He put together a packet that included his birth certificate, proof of his education and proof of a criminal background check, and he got a physical. He said his interview at the U.S. consulate in Sydney was brief. The officer asked him about his education and then gave his documents a stamp of approval.

Clark said he agrees with Trump that the U.S. immigration system needs serious reforms, but said he would hate to see the diversity visa program be eliminated.

"The real strength of the program is it gives hope to people who would have little to no chance to live in America," he said.

How the Program Works
The U.S. State Department provides as many as 50,000 immigrant visas to the U.S. each year through the lottery system. The program is open to countries with historically low rates of immigration to the U.S. It was created under a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, as part of a bipartisan immigration bill signed into law in 1990.

The lottery can be traced to the previous decades, when thousands of Irish left home because of Ireland's economic crisis and often overstayed tourist visas in the U.S. Many lacked the job experience or family ties that would have allowed them to get green cards. And Italians who had previously been able to immigrate without many restrictions were hemmed in by the 20,000 per-country limit, Anna O. Law, a political scientist at CUNY Brooklyn College, wrote in Politico.

Diversity Visas Issued in 2015

Top 10 countries

Country Visas Issued
Cameroon 5,000
Liberia 5,000
Iran 4,992
Nepal 4,991
Egypt 4,988
Ethiopia 4,988
Congo, Democratic Republic Of The 4,943
Ukraine 4,679
Uzbekistan 4,368
Russia 4,103

Source: Department of State

While the recipients are picked through a randomized system, applicants must meet a number of standards, including having at least a high school education, or fulfill work experience requirements. They must also pass a background check and are vetted just as thoroughly as other potential immigrants to the U.S., according to the State Department.

One's chances of winning a diversity visa are slim. The State Department received more than 9.3 million qualified entries in 2015, the last year for which acceptance data is available. In 2015, 11 people from Mozambique, three people from Belize and just one person from Laos won the visas.

The Case for Changing the Diversity Visa Program
Steve Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration and asylum law at Cornell Law School, criticized the lottery for leaving immigration to chance.

"I think we can do better than that," he said. "I think that we have an obligation to decide what types of people we want to allow to immigrate to the United States, and to say, 'Well, we can't figure it out so we'll leave it up to random chance' I think is just giving up on an important part of any country's sovereignty."

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Yale-Loehr, an an immigration lawyer for more than 30 years, said the country should decide what it wants from immigration. Most countries, he said, accept immigrants for three reasons: family relationships, employment characteristics and humanitarian concerns for people fleeing persecution.

"And diversity is good," he said. "We always like to have diversity, particularly in the United States, but I think you can accommodate diversity among the other three streams. I don't think we need a separate stream just for diversity and only by random lottery."

Yale-Loehr said the U.S. could do a better job of picking, through an evaluation of family and employment prospects, which immigrants it thought could help the country — the way Canada and Australia do.

What This Year's Applicants Face
People who applied for diversity visas to the U.S. prior to Oct. 11 need to resubmit their applications because of a technical issue, the State Department's website says. Enrollment for the 2019 program began Oct. 18 and will conclude at noon EST Nov. 22. Entries must be made online, not by mail. The preliminary application calls for detailed information on one's education and work experience. Residents of about 20 countries are not eligible this time because more than 50,000 of each country's citizens immigrated to the U.S. in the past five years. 

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