Law360 (June 8, 2021, 8:31 PM EDT) -- Thousands of winners of the annual visa lottery sued the Biden administration in Washington, D.C., federal court, saying its policies have brought diversity visa processing to a standstill, tarnishing their golden chance to live in the U.S.
Roughly 24,000 lottery winners and their families accused U.S. President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and two State Department officials overseeing the diversity visa program of instituting policies that have left them unable to secure the visas before they expire, according to the Monday complaint.
Maxwell Goodluck, a lottery winner from Ghana, said Tuesday that his family celebrated when he won the chance to immigrate to the U.S.
"But now, our mothers cry every night because all hope is gone for their sons and daughters. We are losing hope every passing day," he said in a statement.
He and other lottery winners brought their suit under the Immigration and Nationality Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
Each year, 23 million people enter the annual Diversity Visa Lottery hoping they will be selected to apply for one of 55,000 diversity visas. Those selected must then apply for the visa, and finish the process in the same fiscal year they won the lottery.
But this year's winners claim the State Department has stopped processing visa applications or conducting the final-stage consular interviews. The State Department has only issued 1,480 of the available 55,000 visas since the 2021 diversity visa program opened, the lottery winners say.
They partly attribute the delays to a "No Visa Policy" that dates back to the Trump administration. In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House temporarily blocked noncitizens from moving to the U.S. on new immigrant visas, including the diversity visa.
Former President Donald Trump faced multiple legal attacks over the ban. But would-be immigrants and advocacy groups also included the State Department in their challenges, claiming it illegally froze visa requests from temporarily blocked foreigners — a so called "No Visa Policy" — under the auspices of that ban. Though Biden lifted the immigrant visa ban in February, he failed to address the ban's lingering effects on visa processing, the lottery winners said.
They also blame the State Department's reopening plans for slow visa processing. In April 2020, the State Department shut down routine consular services in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. Though consulates are resuming full services, they first have to contend with the visa applications that accrued throughout the pandemic. In light of the backlog, the State Department explained it will process visa applications on a priority scale, with diversity visas among the lowest-priority visa categories.
"The Department values the diversity visa program and is making every effort to process as many diversity visa cases as possible, consistent with other priorities, despite the severe operational constraints and backlog resulting from the COVID pandemic," the department said in an April 30 notice.
However, the department "likely will not" issue all the 2021 diversity visas, it said.
But the lottery winners claim their visas should be moved up the priority scale, pointing out that unlike other higher-priority visas, any unissued 2021 diversity visas will expire on Sept. 30.
They asked the Washington, D.C., court to order the State Department to process their visa applications before the visas expire. They also seek a court order requiring the White House to preserve any unused diversity visas through the expiration date.
Over the past year, the Washington, D.C., federal court has been home to several lawsuits challenging the immigrant visa ban, including litigation from winners of the 2020 Diversity Visa Lottery. In September, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta ordered the State Department to quickly process visa requests from that year's lottery winners.
A State Department official declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
The lottery winners are represented by Curtis Lee Morrison, Rafael Ureña, Abadir Barre, Kristina Ghazaryan, Philip Duclos, Jana Al-Akhras and Jonathan Aftalion of Morrison Ureña LC.
Counsel for the government wasn't available Tuesday.
The case is Goodluck et al. v. Biden et al., case number 1:21-cv-1530, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
--Editing by Emily Kokoll.
Update: This story has been updated with a State Department official's response when reached for comment.
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