WASHINGTON — Jackpot! Not so fast.
For a few joyful days, more than 20,000 people around the world thought they literally had hit the lottery and won a chance to come and live legally in the United States. Oops, the State Department said Friday, we had computer problems and have to run the annual visa lottery again.
The decision reopens competition for 50,000 wild-card visas for people who otherwise would have little hope of qualifying. About 15 million had applied, so it's good news for many people who thought they had lost.
But the glitch, which the State Department blamed on an in-house programming error, dashes the hopes of people like Max, a 28-year-old German man. He had recently checked a department website and found what he'd hoped for: Out of a random drawing with overwhelmingly long odds, he was one of the lucky few who might get one of the visas.
"It's like you won $100,000, and then they just take it away from you and it's gone," said Max, who would give only his last name for fear that full identification might jeopardize his chances in future applications.
The State Department apologized.
"Any results previously posted and available through the website are considered invalid," the department said in a statement. "We sincerely regret any inconvenience or disappointment this problem might have caused."
The drawing, which the State Department calls the Diversity Visa Lottery, is an annual free-for-all established by Congress in 1994 to increase the number of immigrants from the developing world and from countries with traditionally low rates of immigration to the U.S. Applicants do not have to have the usual family or employer sponsor.
The lottery selects 90,000 names from a pool of online entrants. That number is winnowed to 50,000 winners through attrition, interviews and educational and occupational rules.
For visas to be awarded in 2012, applicants had to submit entries between Oct. 5 and Nov. 3, 2010. The glitch meant that among 14.7 million entries, about 90 percent of the people picked to move on to the next step came from applications submitted the first two days.
"These results are not valid because they did not represent a fair, random selection of the entrants as required by U.S. law," said David Donahue, the deputy assistant secretary of state whose office oversees the lottery.
Donahue recorded an online video to apologize and explain the situation.
The now-invalidated results became available online on May 1, and about 1.9 million people including Max had checked before the problem was uncovered on May 5. Of those who looked up their status, about 22,000 were informed erroneously that they had been selected to move to the next step in the process, the department said.
A new lottery will be held from the existing pool of entries with winners announced in mid-July. Applicants do not need to re-enter. No new entries will be accepted.
Max said he checked his status on the website on May 1 and was thrilled to find the results. He immediately set to work filling out the necessary paperwork, getting photographs taken and mailing in his next-step application.
In the past few days, he said he had been checking the site regularly for updates, "but they always had an error saying they were having technical difficulties. They only just changed today."
"It's very frustrating. It has been two weeks since we were informed. You made some plans. It affects not just yourself but your family and people you had told," he said. "You couldn't believe yourself that you had won it and now this — it's very frustrating."
Max said he is already living in the U.S., working legally in Florida on a visa that will expire next year, and he and his fiancee have been planning on making a life in the U.S. together. Max said he fears that good luck may not strike twice.
"I don't believe I'm going to win a second time in July, but I will wait to see what happens."
The Associated Press contacted Max through a German company that helps applicants navigate the thicket of paperwork for what is known around the world as the "green card lottery."
The lottery has taken on an almost mythical quality in some parts of the world. For all the criticism of the U.S. overseas, it remains the single most desirable place to immigrate, either legally or illegally.
Though the likelihood of winning the lottery is small, millions try every year because it's still the most realistic chance.
Citizens of 19 countries that have sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. in the previous five years are not allowed to participate: Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, South Korea and Vietnam. Persons born in Northern Ireland, the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau as well as Taiwan are eligible.
The lottery has been conducted entirely electronically for the past 15 years, and the department said this year is the first time it has encountered a problem. It blamed a data coding error in a new computer program for the mistake.
Associated Press writer Melissa Eddy in Berlin contributed to this report.
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