The 10 million or so aspiring Americans who enter this lottery every year do not have to have family members here. Nor do they have to demonstrate special skills. They merely have to come from a country, like my native Germany, that is underrepresented in the immigrant pool, fill out a simple form and hope that, against very long odds, they get to live the American dream.
Imagine my ecstasy, then, when I checked the State Department’s Web site in the early morning on May 1, and saw that I had won the lottery. Like tens of thousands of lucky winners all over the world, I stared at my screen in disbelief. Was my dream of staying in America really to be fulfilled? Could I one day call New York, a city I love like no other in the world, my home? The answer, it turns out, is a crushing no.
Last Friday, the State Department had to admit to a huge mistake. Because of a programming error, a disproportionate number of those selected to receive a green card had entered the lottery on the first two eligible days, Oct. 5 or 6 of last year. But the law demands a truly random selection process. My winning notification was rescinded. “We regret any inconvenience this might have caused,” the State Department said in a statement.
Many of my fellow not-quite-winners reacted to the cruel news with indignation. In a sign of how American many of them already are, some are even planning a class-action lawsuit against the State Department. I share their sadness — it won’t be easy for me to let that dream go. And for those who were hoping to overcome real economic hardship or escape the grip of an authoritarian regime, it must be harder still.
But I will not be joining the lawsuit. Sometimes bureaucratic mistakes, even ones that play with the emotions of thousands of people, just happen. More important, I recognize that the beauty of the green card lottery lies in its very randomness, in the fact that no one gets a leg up over anyone else for any reason.
Opponents of the Diversity Visa Lottery, as the program is officially known, are likely to try to use the fate of people like me to their advantage. A bill introduced in January by Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, would abolish the lottery. Instead of randomly giving away the coveted green cards, he would make it easier for holders of advanced degrees from American universities to stay in the country upon graduation.
As a graduate student in the United States, I am actually more likely to benefit from Mr. Issa’s proposed immigration reform than I am to win the green card lottery a second time. Nevertheless, I hope his bill will be defeated. Despite the recent setbacks, the green card lottery is a shrewd way for the United States to honor a history of open immigration that lasted until the late 19th century, and win over hearts and minds along the way.
While the completely open borders of yore are sadly not feasible today, the lottery, in its limited way, helps America to remain a land of equal opportunity.
Yascha Mounk, the founding editor of the online magazine The Utopian, is a graduate student in political theory at Harvard.