Winning the U.S. Visa Lottery, Losing Faith in the American Dream

Winning the U.S. Visa Lottery, Losing Faith in the American Dream

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QUEENS, N.Y.—Sunita K., a petite, 46-year-old woman with freckled skin, peeked through the door of a 7-Eleven in Queens, trying to catch a glimpse of the person behind the billing counter. She was searching for Indian faces, confused by similar brown-skinned Hispanic ones. A Nepalese immigrant, Sunita speaks only a few words of English and was hoping to find a benevolent Hindi-speaking Indian to give her a job. Any job.

“I felt defeated,” she says in scarcely coherent Hindi, her first and only language being Nepalese. In the two years that Sunita* and her family have spent in the United States, they have been sucked into a vicious cycle of isolation, unemployment, illness and shattered dreams. “We were supposed to be lucky to be in America, but this has been the worst time of my life.”

Sunita was one of the 50,000 winners of the 2008 “Green Card” lottery. Officially called the Diversity Visa lottery, it is offered by the U.S. State Department in countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. Winners, chosen through a random computer-generated lottery, are given permanent resident visas to live, work and study in the U.S. Each year, more than 10 million people apply; like Sunita, 70 percent of the winners come from developing countries in Africa and Asia.

But without any assistance, family or guidance in a new country, many find themselves unprepared to start their lives from scratch.

When he applied for the lottery, Sunita’s husband, 48-year-old Bijay, had worked for 20 years as a civil irrigation engineer for the Nepalese government. He had a comfortable job, the perks of government employment and a settled life, but was persuaded by his 18-year-old son’s desire to study computer engineering in the U.S. and his own wish to be among the “lucky” Nepalese to win the “golden opportunity to go to America.”

Three months later, the consular officer at the U.S. embassy in Kathmandu shook his hand and said heartily, “Welcome to America.” The K. family had won the Green Card lottery.

In preparation for their new life, Bijay mortgaged the family home to raise 1 million Nepalese rupees, roughly $14,000. The family paid around $700 each for the lottery fee, spent $4,500 on three one-way air tickets, and set aside the rest to cover their initial expenses in the U.S.

Lottery winners are unique in their lack of a support system. Unlike immigrants who are “sponsored” by families or employers based in the U.S., those with diversity lottery visas often don’t have a family or job waiting for them. Nor do they have avenues for help or information— the State Department does not offer orientation sessions or programs to integrate them into mainstream American society. A booklet, “Welcome to the United States: A Guide for New Immigrants,” published by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, is available in 17 languages. But immigrants are seldom aware of even this rudimentary resource.

Sunita and her family certainly weren’t. They first arrived at the home of a friend of a friend in Springfield, Maryland, where they rented a two-bedroom apartment for $1,000 a month. But they quickly realized that Bijay's engineering degree from Nepal would not get him a job in the U.S., unless he supplemented it with a six-month American diploma. Nepalese neighbors and acquaintances told the family to apply for jobs in stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot, just to pay the bills till they found better work. But Sunita and Bijay were turned down there, too. Without references, they couldn’t get jobs.

“This is the plight of most people who come to the U.S. on DV lottery,” says Narbada Chhetri, a senior community organizer at a New York–based Nepalese not-for-profit, Adhikaar. “They are normally educated Nepalese, but when they come here, they become cheap labor for local businesses. They are desperate and willing to work very hard for very little money.”

Unlike other visas, the Diversity Visa requires applicants to have a high school education or at least two years of work experience. A 2008 report by the Migration Policy Institute, called “Uneven Progress,” said lottery winners were the second-largest group of legal immigrants, after refugees and asylees, to suffer significant occupational downgrading in the U.S. Immigrants with college, even masters’ degrees, are employed as babysitters, domestic help, cab drivers and waiters.

Upwardly Global, a New York–based organization, helps foreign-trained immigrants to develop job search techniques, craft U.S. style resumes, and hone interview skills. A third of their clients are lottery winners, says Nikki Cicerani, the executive director.

Job-hunting is only a part of the problem though. The K. family was uninformed about many aspects of living and working in the U.S: What is a Social Security number? How does health insurance work? How could they get proof of permanent address?

Sunita spent her days worrying and her nights crying. Chronic anxiety and haphazard meal times led to her developing severe gastric problems, and the cold weather stirred Bijay’s asthma from hibernation.

Broken, the family decided to start over and moved to a crammed, one-bedroom basement apartment in Annandale, Virginia. Their son, Sunil, landed a job as a waiter at an Indian restaurant, where he worked 12 hours a day and returned home so tired, Sunita recalls, he couldn’t even bend to remove his shoes.

“In Nepal, my boy had never so much as lifted a cup of tea,” she says, tears springing to her eyes. “And here he was, working like a servant. I used to cry to myself. I wanted to ask the American government, ‘What do we do? Where do we go? Who should we ask for help?’ This wasn’t the America we had signed up for.”

Winners of the Domestic Visa lottery often complain that they have been thrown into the deep end, with not even a helpline to call, says Segun Kerry, founder of the New York–based Nigerian Community Help Center, which provides emergency assistance, counseling and referral services to Nigerians in America. “But despite the hardships and isolation, people keep coming because the situation in our country is bad and unsafe,” he adds.

In addition to everything else, the K. family's new country felt unsafe. One night, as Sunil was walking home from work, he was mugged at gunpoint. That’s when the family decided to move again, this time picking Queens, New York, where a large Nepalese community lives.

Sunita got a job as a nanny for an Indian family that paid $400 a week; her son took a string of restaurant and other jobs.

But New York’s promise of a better life proved elusive too. Sunil, disillusioned about his work and guilt-ridden about his parents’ plight, fell into a severe depression and eventually moved to New Jersey to work at a gas station.

Most nights, Sunil has trouble sleeping, but he says he feels better knowing that he is contributing $400 a month to his father, who was recently diagnosed with a liver disorder. Sunita often thinks about returning home, but without a house or money to pay her debts, Nepal is no longer an option.

“My husband doesn’t eat and is too weak to move. He still tries to get up and hunt for a job. If he dies, I don’t think I’ll even have the money to cremate him,” Sunita says, unable to hold back her tears. “There is no God here."

*some names and details have been changed