While the United States of America has had its share of criticism throughout the world, it is still the most sought-after country to relocate to, with millions of immigrants attempting to immigrate annually. Even before declaring independence, immigrants from all over the world started seeking out a new future for themselves or their families in the new world, leading to the U.S. congress enacting restrictions on immigration as early as 1917. There are, however, numerous programs and options available for immigrants who wish to settle down here.
The visa lottery
Most people are aware of the various immigration work visas and student visas and the option to acquire citizenship by marrying an American citizen. However, unbeknownst to many, another attractive option exists in the diversity visa lottery (a.k.a. the Green-Card lottery or DV lottery). This program was enacted starting in 1990, during the Bush administration, and is designed to allow people worldwide to legally immigrate to the United States even if they don’t have any special skills or credentials.
One such winner is Erez Benari of Redmond, Washington. After several attempts, Benari won the lottery in 2007 and immigrated to the Pacific Northwest a few months later, in August 2008. “I’ve dreamt of living in America since I was a teenager,” says Benari passionately. “I jokingly tell people that I was inspired by the movie E.T., where the characters order a pizza for home delivery,” says Benari. “I must go live in this magical place!!!” said Benari to himself, though he admits this story is just a fun way of putting this, and he doesn’t remember when it was that he actually set his sight on the U.S.
The DV lottery is not a simple process. Every year, the United States government allocates 55,000 immigrant visas and conducts a lottery between the eligible participants who applied that year. Residents of certain countries are excluded from the lottery, such as Canada and China, as these countries have a large influx of immigrants in other programs.
The program also eliminates applicants who have not finished their high school education or have professional experience in a field that requires training and applicants with certain health issues or criminal backgrounds. Applicants who win the lottery receive an immigrant visa, and one is also given to their spouse and dependents. This means that the number of applicants and winner changes every year, with 2020 having seen over 23 million applicants and 2014 having over 140,000 recipients.
The average number of applicants is approximately 16 million, which means the odds of winning are approximately 1:290. The actual odds are higher, however, as a significant portion of the applicants is rejected for not meeting the eligibility criteria. Once the applicant completes this process, receives their visa, and enters the United States, a permanent resident card (a.k.a. Green Card) is prepared and sent to them within a few weeks.
Winning the lottery, however, is just the first part. Once applicants have been selected, they are required to pass a health screening, fill and submit many forms and other paperwork (for example, if they need a visa for their spouse, they need to prove that they are, in fact, legally married). The process also includes an interview at the local U.S. embassy, where the applicants are scrutinized further. “The process following the win was lengthy and highly stressful,” tells us Benari. “While there was some information on the internet, it was very lacking and unreliable, and due to the high importance of this for my spouse and me, we were extremely stressed out and worried that we might mess it up somehow.” However, Benari successfully completed the process, settling in Washington state, where he remains today, even though he and his wife separated in 2017.
The DV lottery support
The DV program does not include any kind of post-immigration help or support, and once the applicants enter the U.S., they are on their own. “While I had a successful career in tech and held a position of Vice President at an Israeli company called STKI, I had little prospects in the U.S.,” laments Benari. “I took several trips and did several job interviews, but nothing worked out, and the clock was ticking.” Benari refers to a requirement of DV winners to move to the United States within a few years or risk losing their green card.
While this requirement has some flexibility to it and various ways to stretch that period, Benari was not willing to risk losing his one chance, so he and his wife decided to move even though neither of them had a job. “I was hoping I’d be able to find something, but there were no leads or guarantees while we were planning, so I prepared several versions of my resume,” says Benari. “One was for work at a tech company like Microsoft, a simpler version was if I got an interview for a more junior technical position, and a 3rd version that was even simpler, so I could apply to work in the food or service industries as a last resource.”
Thankfully, Benari eventually scored a good position with Microsoft, which came through very last minute. “It was literally during a good-bye party we did for some friends that an email came through with a job offer,” says Benari with a glint in his eye. “It wasn’t a huge salary, but it was enough to support both of us, even though my wife’s income was close to zero for many years.”
Benari joined Microsoft’s customer service and support organization (CSS), supporting Microsoft’s information-security products IAG, TMG, and UAG, a position he held for the next five years. “Moving from being V.P. to a phone-support guy was not a proud move for me, of course, “admits Benari, “but beggars can’t be choosers, and I had to make the best of it.” Benari did indeed do so, and within a few years, he became a favorite among Microsoft’s customers and became the most senior support engineer on the team. “Part of that was thanks to me publishing a book about the product I supported, which sold very well and made me a celebrity of sorts for my customers. I would pick up the phone and say ‘thank you for calling Microsoft, this is Benari, ’ and most of them would pause and ask, ‘Wait, are you the guy who wrote THE book?’” shares Benari.
Eligible for citizenship
Winners of the DV lottery are also eligible to apply for citizenship after spending five years in the United States with their green card. They are not required to do so and can simply remain as green card holders, only having to renew it every ten years, but most winners aspire to become full citizens and do so as soon as possible. “I was super-ready for this and applied for citizenship early morning on the 5th anniversary of my immigration,” Benari tells us. “The naturalization process is long and complex, but I made it through in record time and became a citizen in April 2013”.
DV lottery program still in effect
While the DV lottery program remains very popular, with many millions applying every year, many objects to it, and various politicians have attempted to disband it over the years. The most recent attempt was in 2017, when Donald Trump, then serving as president, called to end the program following an incident where a DV lottery winner Sayfullo Saipov committed a terrorist attack in New York after becoming radicalized by ISIL. However, despite the attempts, the DV program is still active.
As for Benari, he plans on remaining in the United States forever. “I felt more at home here on the day we landed than I ever felt back in Israel,” claims Benari. “The United States is an amazing country, and it’s an honor to be here.” Benari eventually went ahead and renounced his Israeli citizenship as well to protect his son. “My son Sol Benari, who was born in the United States, was automatically a citizen of Israel, and so he would have been required to serve in the Israeli Military when he becomes an adult,” says Benari.
“While there is a process to avoid that for Israelis who live abroad, it is error-prone and unreliable, and children of immigrants like me sometimes find themselves arrested as “defectors” upon arriving in Israel to visit their family,” informs us Benari. “This isn’t uncommon, and I was highly concerned and preferred to renounce my citizenship so that I can be sure he is safe from this. Just imagining my son, who doesn’t speak Hebrew, having to deal with the police or military, known for being obtuse and merciless, upon a routine visit to his grandparents…I had to make sure this never happens,” he says. “My son is the most important thing in the world to me, and I had to protect him, even at the cost of giving up my Israeli citizenship.”
Benari’s situation is not unique, as many countries require immigrants to give up their birth citizenship when they accept an American one. There are also numerous cases of the opposite – American citizens who have relocated to other countries and renounced their American citizenship. Several thousand Americans do this on an average year. The reason is usually tax-related.
Americans living abroad are still required to file tax reports in the United States. That often means paying more in taxes on top of the taxes they pay in their country of residence. “I know some people take American citizenship for granted, “says Benari, “but I don’t. Moving here was the most important achievement in my life, and I will always cherish and love this country, even though things here aren’t always perfect.”
Featured Image by Ralphs_Fotos from Pixabay