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Losing By Winning

Monday, August 27, 2012

The media are filled with sorrowful stories of everyday people who suddenly strike it rich in state or national lotteries, only to lose their newfound millions when they are beset by poor judgment and poor luck. In the end, a disproportionate number of these lottery winners end up losers, with some wishing they would have been better off if they had never won at all.

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a journalist for Reuters as well as an editor at The New Inquiry, an online portal for essays and opinion pieces. She is also a former lottery winner, but for a different kind of green – a green card. As she details in a recent piece for The New York Times (, when she entered the green card lottery in the fall of 2010, she never imagined she would emerge a loser after winning.

The seeds for her dilemma were planted over 25 years ago when her Iranian-born parents were living in Switzerland but had yet to obtain naturalized citizenship. Abrahamian’s mother was pregnant with her, but her parents faced a difficult problem: Switzerland did not grant citizenship to children born to parents who are not naturalized citizens, and they did not want their future daughter to face the logistical headaches that come with carrying an Iranian passport. So instead, her parents decided to have her mother fly to Canada shortly before her due date and stay with her brother there. After Abrahamian’s birth, the new Canadian citizen returned to Switzerland, and 8 years later, she became eligible for Swiss citizenship after her mother was naturalized.

By 2010, Abrahamian was studying journalism in New York City and it had become home. She had no close connections in Canada or Iran, and felt alienated in Geneva, but she soon realized her job opportunities in America would be complicated by her immigration status. She entered the diversity lottery for a green card, and discovered in the summer of 2011 that she had won. Soon after, however, things took a strange twist. As Abrahamian explains:

“Two painful months later, I received a letter from the United States Embassy in Bern. It informed me that I was disqualified from the lottery because I’d claimed the wrong country of origin. Although I had Swiss citizenship, I was not a Swiss native, because I was born in Canada. Canadians typically aren’t eligible for the lottery, but if I’d claimed Iran, where my parents were born, I wouldn’t have had any trouble. I appealed and complained, but nothing could be done.”

The Immigration Act of 1990 established the Diversity Visa program, which allows the granting of 55,000 immigrant visas to diversify the U.S. population through an annual lottery. However, there’s a catch: lottery winners are not eligible to enter if they were born in any territory that has sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. in the previous five years via the family-sponsored, employment, or immediate relatives of U.S. citizen categories (refugees, asylum seekers, and certain other groups are exempted). For this reason, citizens born in Canada are usually ineligible to enter the lottery, as this 50,000-immigrant/five-year cap is routinely exceeded.

Fortunately for Abrahamian, this lottery loser ultimately won in the end. She eventually secured an O-1 visa of extraordinary ability earlier this year with the help of a skillful immigration attorney. The lesson here is clear: While it is difficult to be an individual without a country, it is even more difficult to be a foreign national without superior legal counsel.

But at least it’s far easier to secure such legal assistance than to win the lottery.

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