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Lottery prize a green card, but foes see U.S. as loser

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2005

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Cybercafes in the war-torn Ivory Coast are abuzz with Africans hoping to become American residents through a U.S. visa lottery that has been criticized post-September 11 as a potential loophole for terrorists.

"I want to get out of here. If I get a green card, life will change ... I will work so hard," said Jean-Bruce, a political science student who paid $4 to use cafe computers to register for his third visa lottery in as many years. He declined to give his family name, fearing retaliation from local authorities.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. State Department opened its annual "Diversity Visa Lottery," -- a 15-year-old program designed to broaden the pool of new immigrants entering the United States.

Applicants must register electronically by Dec. 5, and manager Guillaume Diagba of the Cyberbusiness Cafe reminds his patrons of the fact with a large sign reading, "Become an American: Transform your dream into a reality."

Out of 6.3 million applicants worldwide last year, 374 Ivorians won the green-card lottery. Mr. Diagba boasts that one of the winners registered at his cafe.

Applicants in Abidjan, once hailed as a cosmopolitan model for West Africa, say they are fed up with a 3-year-old civil war that has divided the country, stalled a once-thriving economy and brought violent outbursts to their city streets.

France used to be the destination of choice for Ivorians looking to move abroad, but ties with Paris have soured in the past year because of friction with French and U.N. peacekeeping forces.

"We don't like the French very much these days, but we always love America," Jean-Bruce said.

The lottery, established by a 1990 act of Congress, makes 50,000 green cards available every year to persons from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

The winners are chosen by a computer-generated random lottery drawing but distributed among six geographic regions with preference given to the areas with the lowest annual immigration rates.

Peter Thompson, chief of consular affairs at the U.S. Embassy, said the lottery program was designed to expand the immigrant pool in a way that eliminated the influence of family and job connections.

But being selected does not guarantee a visa will be issued, he said. Winners must meet simple but strict criteria, including having a high-school diploma or equivalent work experience.

No visas are given to citizens of countries that have sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the past five years. These include Mexico, Canada, India, El Salvador, Britain and South Korea.

But critics complain that there is no restriction on residents of countries listed on the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism; last year's lottery winners included 805 persons from Sudan, 934 from Iran and 47 from Syria.

Deputy Inspector General for the State Department Ann W. Patterson has testified before Congress that despite improvements in the system -- including digital fingerprinting to prevent fraud -- the visa lottery remains an opportunity for criminals and terrorists to infiltrate U.S. borders.

And unlike temporary visas, green cards allow the holders to enter and leave the United States at will.

"In a post-9/11 world, we need to know who is coming to the United States and not drawing names out of a hat," said John Keeley, spokesman for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter restrictions on both legal and illegal immigration.

Critics cite the case of Egyptian-born Hesham Mohammed Hedayet, who gained entry to the United States when his wife was chosen in the diversity lottery and later killed two persons at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002.

Former U.S. Hamas leader Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook also received a green card through the lottery before being arrested and deported in 1997 for suspected involvement in terrorist activity.

But Ivorians say that they have no interest in stirring up trouble.

"People here are not a threat to the way Americans live. This is not our mentality," Jean-Bruce said. "We don't want to destroy anything over there. We want to have it."