Last summer, Najma, a health care worker based in Kabul, had the most eventful week of her life: First, she narrowly survived a terrorist attack at the hospital where she works. Then, just days later, as she was still making sense of the terrifying event, she got the news of a lifetime: Her father had won a green card to the United States in a lottery through the diversity visa program, which promotes immigration from underrepresented nations. Najma and her family would be able to immigrate with him and live a peaceful life in the United States, something she had always dreamed of for herself and her siblings.
“It was like God’s message,” she said. “My parents and I were suffering from a bad situation mentally, but suddenly we found hope.”
So the family filed the necessary paperwork and waited for an interview at the US Embassy, a process that usually took just a few months before the pandemic and the Trump administration. Weeks turned into months, and still they waited. Now, more than a year later, the Taliban has taken over their country. With the US Embassy closed, Najma and her family fear they may never be able to get out.
Najma’s family is one of millions from all over the world who applied for the US diversity visa lottery last year. The program hands out about 55,000 green cards to people chosen from countries such as Nepal, Afghanistan, Albania, and Somalia, which don’t typically send many immigrants to the United States. Approximately 1 percent of applicants get selected. This year, 60,602 people in Afghanistan applied, and 2,189 were chosen.
The number of diversity visas allotted in 2021 is among the lowest the United States has ever issued. As of July 2021, the State Department had issued around 3,506 visas out of 55,000 lottery winners, or a meager 6 percent of the visas. As of June 30, they hadn’t issued even a single visa to any of the 2,189 winners from Afghanistan in 2021. And time is running out: If the State Department doesn’t issue the remaining 50,000 visas by the end of September, they’ll expire. The winners will lose their shot at coming to the United States forever.
It’s somewhat of a miracle that the diversity visa lottery still exists at all. President Trump hated it and tried to dismantle it. First, he said the program brings immigrants from “shithole countries.” Then, citing COVID-19 related reasons, he shut down consulates across the world and froze diversity and a few other types of visas entirely. Then, claiming that the pandemic was taking jobs from Americans, for many months last year, the administration stopped issuing diversity visas altogether. After multiple lawsuits challenged his policies and pressure from federal judges, the administration restarted the program but placed diversity visas in a bottom priority tier, which further slowed processing.
Curtis Morrison, an immigration attorney who is a litigator of one of these lawsuits, said that even though Trump put these policies in place, the Biden administration hasn’t tried very hard to undo them.
“Absent judicial intervention, everybody's going to lose because this administration has proven that justice and immigration policy is just not where their priority is,” he said.
A State Department spokesperson told Mother Jones that the agency was "making every effort to process as many Diversity Visa cases as possible, consistent with other priorities, despite the severe operational constraints and backlog resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic." The spokesperson added that it's highly unlikely that they'll be able to issue all the allocated diversity visas for the year, but that those who've applied for their visas from Afghanistan could request their visas be transferred to a nearby embassy.
Last week, I spoke with several families in Afghanistan who won the diversity visa lottery—and are now afraid that their dream of a better life in the United States may never come true. I’ve changed all the names of Afghan citizens in this story to protect them from retaliation by the Taliban.
Jamshed, a civil engineer from Kunduz, applied for the diversity visa for two years in a row and didn’t get selected. The third time, he applied on behalf of his wife, hoping she’d bring him luck. Their application was selected in 2020. Jamshed made multiple trips to Kabul and spent many months collecting documents in hopes that they’d be invited for an interview at the embassy, but it never happened.
Now, he and his family have escaped from their home and are hiding in fear of the Taliban. Jamshed worries that his experience working in US-backed firms and publicizing that he was a lottery winner with intentions to immigrate to the US may put him at risk. He has already started scrubbing his social media profiles.
His wife—a midwife and a teacher—worries that she won’t be able to go out to buy groceries, let alone continue to work.
Winning the diversity lottery was the best news for Jameel and his family in 2020 amid the pandemic. A member of the Ismaili Muslim community, a religious minority group in Afghanistan that has been targeted by the Taliban in the past, Jameel hasn’t stepped out of his home since he learned about the Taliban's takeover of Kabul. He fears he’ll be persecuted because of his faith. He considered escaping from the country by running to the airport but decided against it.
“Where can I escape?” he said. “I cannot. The borders are all controlled by the Taliban.”
Multiple lawsuits challenge the rapidly approaching September 30 expiration date on diversity visas and request the courts to consider carrying forward the quota beyond the deadline. In a lawsuit challenging these rules in 2020, a judge ordered that a portion of the visas wouldn’t be counted as expired. Even if the lawsuits provide some relief for diversity visa winners from other countries, it may be too late for winners from Afghanistan to get out. Given how hard it is for anyone to get out of Afghanistan right now, even if the visas were granted, there’s no guarantee they would be able to leave.
The political climate in Afghanistan is rife with uncertainty. Two major major money-transfer services, Western Union Co. and MoneyGram International Inc., have stopped doing business in Afghanistan. The United States has frozen money in the Afghan central bank to keep the Taliban from accessing it. People fear that it’s only a matter of time before airports close and borders shut down. Already there are reports of the Taliban using force to crush protests.
As of today, some families who have won the lottery in 2021 may still be able to go to Islamabad or other embassies in neighboring countries if the State Department transfers there. Many fear that in a few days, the Taliban might shut down borders completely and persecute those who tried to leave to the United States.
Since Najma, the health care worker whose father won the diversity visa lottery, heard the news of the Taliban taking over her country, she has been having nightmares. All the progress she’d made over the course of the year processing the trauma of the terrorist attack she survived has been erased, she said.
When I talked to her on the phone last week, she broke down. “It’s very important for us to leave this country,” she told me. “It’s been a few days since the Taliban has taken over Kabul and I have been having the same feelings as I had on the day of the terrorist attack.”
The American nonprofit that Najma now works for instructed her and her colleagues to destroy all proof of identification for their safety, but the organization didn’t have the resources to extradite her.
“I don’t know what will happen to us if the telephone or internet gets disconnected,” Najma said. “There is no guarantee.”
Najma hasn’t been able to sleep for the last few days. She worries about her future, and she worries about the future of her younger sisters, who might not be able to go to school. She worries too much, she said: “I am feeling very hopeless. I am young, but if you live in Afghanistan, you become old.”
Morrison, the immigration attorney, has been urging the State Department to intervene quickly and issue visas to the Afghan lottery winners. He’s also urging judges to intervene on the lawsuits. “To these families, it's now or never, if the judge is going to issue an order," he said. "Let's hope he issues that now.”
This article has been updated.