- Associated Press - Sunday, May 15, 2011

Jackpot! Not so fast.

For a few joyful days, more than 20,000 people around the world thought they literally had hit the lottery and won a chance to come and live legally in the United States. Oops, the State Department said Friday, we had computer problems and have to run the annual visa lottery again.

The decision reopens competition for 50,000 wild-card visas for people who otherwise would have little hope of qualifying. About 15 million had applied, so it’s good news for many people who thought they had lost.

But the glitch, which the State Department blamed on an in-house programming error, dashes the hopes of people like Max, a 28-year-old German man. He had recently checked a department website and found what he’d hoped for: Out of a random drawing with overwhelmingly long odds, he was one of the lucky few who might get one of the visas.

“It’s like you won $100,000, and then they just take it away from you and it’s gone,” said Max, who would give only a partial name for fear that full identification might jeopardize his chances in future applications.

The State Department apologized.

“Any results previously posted and available through the website are considered invalid,” the department said in a statement. “We sincerely regret any inconvenience or disappointment this problem might have caused.”

The drawing, which the State Department calls the Diversity Visa Lottery, is an annual free-for-all established by Congress in 1994 to increase the number of immigrants from the developing world and from countries with traditionally low rates of immigration to the U.S. Applicants do not have to have the usual family or employer sponsor.

The lottery selects 90,000 names from a pool of online entrants. That number is winnowed to 50,000 winners through attrition, interviews and educational and occupational rules.

For visas to be awarded in 2012, applicants had to submit entries between Oct. 5 and Nov. 3, 2010. The glitch meant that among 14.7 million entries, about 90 percent of the people picked to move on to the next step came from applications submitted the first two days.

“These results are not valid because they did not represent a fair, random selection of the entrants as required by U.S. law,” said David Donahue, the deputy assistant secretary of state whose office oversees the lottery.

Mr. Donahue recorded an online video to apologize and explain the situation.

The now-invalidated results became available online on May 1, and about 1.9 million people including Max had checked before the problem was uncovered on May 5. Of those who looked up their status, about 22,000 were informed erroneously that they had been selected to move to the next step in the process, the department said.

A new lottery will be held from the existing pool of entries with winners announced in mid-July. Applicants do not need to re-enter. No new entries will be accepted.

The lottery has taken on an almost mythical quality in some parts of the world. For all the criticism of the U.S. overseas, it remains the single most desirable place to immigrate, either legally or illegally.

Though the likelihood of winning the lottery is small, millions try every year because it’s still the most realistic chance.

The lottery has been conducted entirely electronically for the past 15 years, and the department said this year is the first time it has encountered a problem. It blamed a data coding error in a new computer program for the mistake.