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California lawyer sues State Dept. over revoked green card lottery

By Faith Karimi, CNN
A computer glitch prompted the State Department to invalidate results of a green card visa lottery.
A computer glitch prompted the State Department to invalidate results of a green card visa lottery.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • State Department revokes results of a diversity visa lottery over a computer glitch
  • Lawyer files a lawsuit, says the decision is a "broken commitment" by the U.S. agency
  • About 22,000 applicants are affected worldwide
  • State Department says it will announce the new winners in July
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(CNN) -- A California immigration lawyer has sued the State Department after the agency tossed out the results of a green card lottery, shattering the dreams of applicants notified that they had won a chance to live in the U.S. legally.

The so-called diversity visa lottery allows foreigners to submit applications on the State Department website every year.

About 15 million people worldwide applied in the most recent drawing, about 50,000 of whom are randomly picked and get a quick path to permanent residency after undergoing interviews and medical exams. Otherwise, the most common route to citizenship is through a family member or to be sponsored by an employer.

Last month, the State Department revoked the results of 22,000 winners who thought they had hit the immigration jackpot.

"It was like winning the money lottery and then having it taken away from you," said Armande Gil, a France native who earned her doctorate in the United States.

"I feel so betrayed. I've lived in the U.S. legally for years. My winning this lottery was an opportunity to get a job, get my permanent residency and pursue my dreams."

A Russian woman, who did not want to be named because the issue is still under review, said she's been distressed since the decision was revoked.

"I can't eat or sleep well, all my hopes are gone," she said.

The State Department has said it plans to release the new results by July 15.

It revoked the results after a computer glitch caused a majority of the winners to be selected from the first few days of applications instead of the entire 30-day registration period.

"These results are not valid because they did not represent a fair, random selection of the entrants as required by U.S. law," David Donahue, a deputy assistant secretary of state, said last month. "We sincerely regret any inconvenience or disappointment this problem might have caused."

Kenneth White, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles, said the decision constitutes a "broken commitment."

He filed a class-action lawsuit Monday in the U.S. District Court in Washington with plaintiffs from about 20 countries, including foreigners living in the United States.

In the suit, he urges the State Department to restore the winners.

"The basis of this case is deep-rooted in the simple and enduring American value that 'our word is our bond,' " he said.

Redoing the results will not only cost the American taxpayer, he said, but it will also harm the U.S. image abroad.

White said he contacted the department last month, requesting that the original winners be recognized and a second drawing be held only to fill the remaining slots.

"The department ignored that proposal. Now as a result of the lawsuit, it is possible that the July 15 re-run of the lottery will be canceled," he said.

The Office of Inspector General, which oversees actions of government agencies, has said the situation is under review, White said.

A State Department official told CNN that they welcome "any review" from the federal watchdog and plan to fully cooperate. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.

As the date for the new results inches closer, those affected are scrambling to make their voices heard.

Applicants based in the United States are spearheading a campaign that includes calling their lawmakers in an attempt to get the decision reversed.

Those affected have also created a Facebook page called "22,000 Tears" that advises applicants worldwide on ways to highlight their plight.

"We are hoping for the best, preparing for the worst," the lawyer said.

The United States started the lottery in the 1990s to diversify its population with immigrants from under-represented countries. Countries such as Mexico, India and Haiti -- which send a lot of immigrants to the United States -- are not eligible to take part in the program.

Critics of the lottery call it unfair and a security risk.

"Most family-sponsored immigrants currently face a wait of years to obtain a visa, yet the visa lottery program pushes 50,000 random immigrants with no particular family ties, job skills or education, ahead of (them)," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia), who introduced legislation earlier this year to eliminate the program.

"The nature of the lottery is such that we have no control over who applies for admission to our country," he added. "Those in the world who wish us harm can easily engage in this statistical gamble with nothing to lose."

CNN's Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.