The long shot: statelessness and the US visa lottery

Cynthia Orchard, Consultant working with ENS and other organisations
/ 6 mins read

Many people, including me, won a ‘nationality lottery’ at birth. We were born with automatic citizenship of our country of birth, or with the same nationality as at least one of our parents. Some are double or triple winners, born with multiple nationalities based on their place of birth and/or the nationalities of their parents. Others, however, lose out on the nationality lottery – they are born stateless, or they become stateless, usually through no fault of their own.

Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, USA
Photo by Avi Werde via Unsplash

In the spring of 2021, a stateless man I’d never met, Ahmed*, contacted me asking if I could help him. He was in his late 20s and has been stateless his entire life in the country of his birth. He lives in a country where that represents a life sentence: there is no statelessness determination procedure, no protective status for stateless people, and no route to becoming a citizen. Like many stateless people, he has endured many hardships because he is not considered a citizen of the country in which he was born, nor any other country. To get an education, he had to travel a long distance to a school that allowed stateless children to attend. He is not allowed to work, so taking on a job in order to survive entails risks. Conditions for stateless people in his country of birth and residence have deteriorated over the past two decades.

Initially, I thought I had no way of helping Ahmed, but then I wondered: maybe he could apply to the US visa lottery (officially the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program). A friend of a friend had obtained a visa and moved to the US through the lottery about 20 years ago. I checked to see if the visa lottery is open to stateless people and found that it is. I suggested to Ahmed that he could try applying, but that it was really a long-shot possibility. Well, friends, he applied, and in December 2022, he won the ‘lottery’ – he was issued a visa to the US. 

I asked Ahmed what he hopes to do once he gets to the US. He wants to improve his English, learn skills that will help him gain employment, and work. He has recently been learning about jewellery design and would love to design jewellery in the US if possible, but he is open to other options. Above all, he hopes to settle into a new life in a country where he has the opportunity for respect as a human being who has rights. He is looking forward to becoming a citizen one day.

I am definitely not an expert on the US visa lottery. The following is a summary based on information published by the US Department of State and US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Through the Diversity Visa Program, up to 50,000 immigrant visas can be issued each year, selected randomly from eligible countries which have low rates of immigration to the US. Slots are allocated for each region and country, with some slots reserved for applicants who are lawfully resident in the US but don’t have permanent residence. 

There is no fee for the initial application (though there are fees later in the process). Step-by-step information about the programme is available here. Applications must be submitted online during an open registration period, and applicants must carefully follow the instructions. They can apply only once during any given registration period (duplicate applications in the same period will result in disqualification). The most recent registration period was from 5 October to 8 November 2022.

Applicants must have a high school diploma or two years of qualifying work experience. They can apply with dependents (spouses and unmarried children up to 21 years of age), who do not have to meet the education/work requirement. Applicants must have a passport, unless they cannot obtain one and are exempt. Fortunately, statelessness is listed as a valid reason for exemption. Stateless applicants are asked to provide evidence that they did not acquire the nationality of their country of birth and do not have any other nationality. Applicants who are selected through the initial phase must pass a medical screening (for which they must pay), pay a non-refundable processing fee (currently $330 USD), and attend an interview at a US embassy before being told if their application was successful or not. Applicants also must not fall foul of general grounds for ineligibility for a US visa (including health and criminality issues).

A recipient of a diversity visa is granted legal permanent residence (aka a ‘green card’) (and the right to work and other rights) upon entry to the US. If all goes well, they may be eligible to naturalise as a US citizen in 5 years.

The odds of getting a visa through the US visa lottery vary from country to country, but overall are low. Each year, there are millions of applicants (including significant numbers from European countries) for a maximum of 50,000 slots.

After our initial contact in 2021, Ahmed got in touch again, in late 2022, when he had passed the first stage of the process and been invited to the US embassy for an interview. Sadly, the first time he went for his interview, a guard refused to allow him to enter the embassy because he didn’t have a passport. He tried to explain his situation, but he was turned away. He contacted the embassy again by email, explained what happened, and managed to arrange a new interview date shortly after that. He went back for round 2, and this time, the guards let him in. His interview went well, and he was told that his application was approved. A few weeks later, he received his visa. Ahmed is now trying to get an exit permit so he can leave his country of birth. He says this is the last hurdle.

Ahmed has a friend in Minneapolis, so he's planning to go there. By chance, I also have a friend in Minneapolis, so I am putting them in touch. I have also mentioned to Ahmed the wonderful people at United Stateless, and I am reaching out to a few other contacts in the US who may be able to point Ahmed to useful resources. I know life in the US will likely present some challenges for Ahmed. But once he’s there, he’ll have opportunities he could not hope for in the country of his birth, including a route to nationality.

Having a nationality is a basic human right, and we obviously need solutions other than visa lotteries. We need universal birth registration, fair laws that prevent and reduce statelessness, and robust refugee status, statelessness, and nationality determination procedures. Through these systems, statelessness can be prevented or identified and stateless persons protected, in line with the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and other international human rights law.

For those who win, the US visa lottery offers a chance at a new life and eventual citizenship. For some stateless people – who meet the criteria and can meet the costs involved in applying and travelling to the US – it may be worth a shot. Sometimes the long shot works out.

I’ll be rooting for Ahmed, and for other stateless people.

Huge thanks to Ahmed for letting me tell part of his story. He wanted to share it, in case it helps others.

*Name changed for protection reasons

Cynthia Orchard works as a consultant with the European Network on Statelessness, Kids in Need of Defense UK, and other organisations. She was born and grew up in the US. She was automatically a US citizen at birth, but was for many years denied the nationality of her Canadian mother because Canadian law did not allow women to transmit nationality to children born outside Canada. Cynthia later naturalised as a British citizen after marrying a British guy and living in the UK for several years and recently registered as a Canadian citizen (Canada’s nationality law has been amended to correct the historic discrimination against women, but many other countries still discriminate on this basis). Cynthia is a (non-practicing) lawyer and has worked with charities and international organisations in several countries on issues affecting refugees, immigrants, stateless people, and impoverished communities. Her current work entails raising awareness of the plight of stateless people, refugees, and migrants, advocating for nationality rights, and fighting to end persecution and discrimination. On Twitter @cynthiaorchard and on LinkedIn.


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