Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 10 News List

Applicants for green card lottery fail to materialize

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

For years it has been the annual wild card of US immigration policy: a worldwide lottery in which millions gamble on winning a green card, and with it the chance to live and work legally in the US. But this year, with a Dec. 30 deadline looming and 55,000 green cards at stake, the lottery has attracted fewer than half the usual number of applications, falling to 5 million from as many as 13 million.

The startling drop-off, everyone agrees, results from the fact that for the first time applications are being accepted only by computer, and government officials say that has curtailed duplications and fraud.

But immigrants and their advocates say the falloff, while linked to the computerization, results from a variety of other factors: fear of giving information to the government online; lack of access to computers; and new opportunities for immigrants to be defrauded.

The falloff, and the different explanations, show that like so much else involving immigrants with government the lottery is being transformed by new perceptions of fear and uncertainty.

US State Department officials insist that the apparent decline is misleading. For the first time, the officials said, they can now electronically compare applications, automatically disqualify anyone who applies more than once, and store information about applicants. In the past, they point out, multiple applications often went undetected, including many from immigrants desperate to legalize their undocumented lives in New York.

But immigrants themselves say other reasons are also depressing the numbers. Some people simply lack access to the tools to apply: a digital photo scanner, a computer and an Internet connection. Some already in the US fear that leaving a computer trail could make them targets of deportation. And hundreds of thousands of others who thought that they were applying were tricked instead, by official-looking Web sites run by a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, couple living their own version of the American dream.

The couple, John Romano and Hoda Nofal, bought a US$1.5 million waterfront home, paid off more than US$739,000 in credit card debt and amassed a US$3.5 million bank account by fraudulently collecting fees for Internet lottery applications that were never submitted, according to criminal charges filed against them in October by federal authorities.

Now, with only a week to go, upstart businesses in computer shops, tax offices and basements all over New York are offering to help would-be applicants play the new odds. Some are scams, New York City officials warned last week. But many are just part of the age-old self-help network of former greenhorns.

A currency trader from Northern Ireland, for example, recently found aid at a tiny copy shop run by Bangladeshis on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, after discovering by chance that he was one of those conned by the Florida couple.

The copy shop, on West 77th Street, is so small that it offers only standing-room use of its two computers, for US$6 an hour. But two of the three Bangladeshi men behind the counter are past green card lottery winners, and they were already trying to help one of their own countrymen convert a passport photograph into digital pixels when the Irish trader confided his troubles.

"After about a dozen tries, we got it in," the trader said, pleading for anonymity after disclosing that he had overstayed temporary visas for seven years. "It was the blind leading the blind."

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