Playing the Odds: End to US ‘Green Card’ Lottery


By Siranuysh Gevorgyan

YEREVAN (ArmeniaNow) — Tens of thousands of citizens of Armenia filed for the US Diversity Visa, better known as the green card lottery, in 2011 and one in a hundred were actually selected and given a chance to pursue their “American Dream.” But the odds that the lottery held for about two decades now will survive no longer appear great as the measure encouraging diversity in US legal immigration may become a tradeoff for a new bipartisan immigration reform package being debated by legislators on Capitol Hill this month.

Armenia appears to have one of the largest per capita rates of applications for the Green Card lottery as revealed by the US Embassy in Yerevan. Thus, about 100,000 of the country’s roughly 3 million people sought to win permanent residence in the US in 2011. In neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan the figures were more modest — 53,000 and 25,000, respectively, whereas the populations in these countries are estimated at 4.5 million and 9.3 million, accordingly.

During the 17 years since the Diversity Visa was first introduced in 1995, about 21,000 citizens of Armenia left for permanent residence to the US as green card lottery winners, said the US Embassy in Yerevan. But the lucky winners of this year (the results were due on May 1 and officially winners are expected to be notified in August) may be the last to enjoy the privilege.

US President Barack Obama, who was reelected for a second term last year, declared immigration reform a priority of his administration. Speaking before the Senate on June 11, Obama said overhauling America’s dysfunctional immigration system cannot wait. “The system is still broken. And to truly deal with this issue, Congress needs to act. And that moment is now,” said Obama, a son of an immigrant from Kenya.

The legislation being considered would create a path to US citizenship for many of the 11 million people who are in the country illegally. It would also further strengthen security at the US-Mexican border. In addition, Obama said the legislation would make it easier for foreign students to stay in the US.

But those now relying on the green card lottery as a path to legal immigration to the US can forget about their American dreams as Uncle Sam is about to scrap it as a compromise deal between Democrats and Republicans. Instead, the new reform package envisages more opportunities for graduates of American universities with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to stay and work legally in the US.

Yerevan-native Hrant Achikyan was one of 50,000 lucky green card lottery winners who were randomly selected from around the world as part of the 2013 Diversity Visa program.

Achikyan, a 25-year-old Armenia-trained lawyer, left for the US about a month ago. He currently stays with his relatives in Los Angeles, but still finds it hard to say whether his decision to chase his American dream was right or wrong.

“I cannot say it until I get a job. Here you can’t do anything until you get a social security number. Once you get it, you can apply for a driving license and an ID to be able to find a job. And I live in a place that requires driving a car in order to go to work. That is why I cannot say anything definite yet as to whether coming here was a good thing or not,” Achikyan told ArmeniaNow from the US. At the same time, the young man thinks he still has more opportunities in life in the US than he would have, had he decided to stay in Armenia.

The end of the green card lottery era may also come as an upset for some businesses and firms that have earned money in the past two decades by helping people file and pursue their applications.

A company owned by Echmiadzin resident Artur Mkrtchyan in addition to other services has traditionally provided services to potential green card applicants. He said if the lottery is discontinued, he will be deprived of some additional earnings as in October/November when the lottery is traditionally held they serve up to 200 customers charging 1,500 drams (about $3.50) for the service.

Mkrtchyan said workers of his company also file green card lottery applications for themselves and their families. In the past five years, according to him, three of his 12 employees have been selected to pursue US permanent residence visas. There have also been other winners among their customers. Mkrtchyan said the number of applicants using the services of his office has been growing from year to year.

“It is interesting thing that when we first started to offer the service we had only young adults, people aged 30-35, filing green card lottery applications, but in recent years we also had elderly people aged up to 85 among our customers. It means that now all, from young to old, want to take part in this lottery,” he said.

A Gallup survey conducted in Armenia in recent years shows that up to 40 percent of the country’s population see their future abroad. Most people who emigrate from Armenia do so in search of better social and economic conditions of life as well as justice that they often do not get in their native country.

A Russian immigration program, Compatriots, has been operating in Armenia in the last few years, attracting thousands of Armenians to resettle to Russian provinces with government support. The program is now suspended, but it is expected to reopen later this year offering even more attractive terms for potential immigrants.

Demography experts and some political and civic circles consider programs like the US Diversity Visa or the Russian ‘Compatriots’ scheme as detrimental to countries like Armenia. But they are also convinced that unless the social and economic problems of the people are addressed by the government, more Armenians will find a way to emigrate with or without such immigration channels.

Meanwhile, during this summer season hundreds of Armenians leave the country on a daily basis, many on buses heading to Russia to find work as labor migrants. The situation is particularly alarming for economically depressed areas of the country like Shirak. People in Gumri joke on the subject that a young man without a job but with a plane ticket is already a prospective husband.

Still, government officials in Armenia downplay the scale of emigration. Senior ruling Republican Party member Galust Sahakyan believes that the opposition simply speculates on the subject of emigration for political gains. He thinks that Armenians will leave and come back and there is no danger in it because “Armenians lived even without statehood and will continue to live and become stronger.”