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Processing delays leave thousands of visa lottery winners in limbo days before deadline

"I had so many plans, but right now, I’m hopeless," student Mohammad Saeedi said.
Image: Afghanistan refugees
Refugees disembark from a U.S. Air Force aircraft after they were evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, at Naval Station Rota in southern Spain last month.Cristina Quicler / AFP via Getty Images file

Their dream of leaving Afghanistan and starting a new life in America is slipping away.

Samira Salehy and Baset Ahmad said they were elated when they learned last year that they had won the 2021 U.S. diversity visa lottery — a program that sees as many as 55,000 green cards awarded each year to immigrants from countries around the world as part of a bid to promote diversity in the U.S.

But after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, they said their futures are at risk because of processing delays the State Department has blamed on the coronavirus pandemic.

"[It was] my big wish," Salehy, 27, told NBC News by telephone Tuesday. The civil engineer and longtime women's rights activist added that upon finding out they had won the lottery in June 2020, she called her husband to tell him their "U.S. dream [was] going to come true."

Samira Salehy, 27, and Baset Ahmad, 33, fled Afghanistan to Poland.Courtesy Baset Ahmad

Now their hope has turned to desperation as the couple is just days away from losing their chance to call America home.

Once the Sept. 30 cutoff date for obtaining visas has passed, they cannot be used and will be lost forever.

For the young couple who fled from Afghanistan to Warsaw, Poland, on a temporary visa in late August, it feels like a matter of life and death.

Ahmad, 33, who served in a senior role with Afghanistan's Ministry for Peace before the Taliban takeover, having previously worked for a company that helped supply fuel to U.S. forces, said their lives were "in danger" before they left their homeland.

Salehy added they would likely have to return if they could not obtain their diversity visas.

The couple are just two of a group of approximately 24,000 peoplefrom around 140 countries who are embroiled in lawsuit against the Biden administration about the delays in processing them.

The deadline for diversity visa cases to be approved will be "logistically impossible" for many to be granted in time, Curtis Morrison, one of the lawyers representing the group, said Tuesday.

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Because it is not a class-action lawsuit, Morrison said it only applied to those named as plaintiffs, so many diversity visa winners could still lose their chance to move to the U.S. regardless of the outcome.

Morrison was also critical of the State Department's decision in June to downgrade diversity visa processing to a "Tier 4" priority — the lowest level — despite the strict deadlines associated with the program.

He said he felt the department was "trying to use Covid" to avoid its responsibility to process the visas in a bid to cut down on an ever-growing backlog.

Taliban soldiers walk in front of the protesters during the anti-Pakistan protest in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 7.West Asia News Agency / Reuters

"Congress and the Immigration and Nationality Act says you have to set aside 55,000 visa winners a year," he said. "They don't have a loophole to get them out of selecting the 55,000, so what they're doing is trying to use Covid as a loophole to get them out of issuing them after they entice and invite those selectees into having hope," he said.

Calling the State Department's behavior "monstrous," he added that the program had already suffered a string of major setbacks over the past five years.

Former President Donald Trump's travel ban affecting predominantly Muslim-majority countries had prevented many diversity visa winners from claiming their prize, and further travel bans announced in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic had also barred applicants from entering the U.S., Morrison said.

Although President Joe Biden overturned the so-called Muslim ban on his first day in office and later rescinded Presidential Proclamation 10014, which blocked visa holders perceived as a "risk to the U.S. labor market" during the pandemic, for many diversity visa winners, his efforts came too late to help their cases, he added.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta issued a temporary injunction this month in Morrison's case ordering the State Department to undertake "good-faith efforts" to process diversity visa 2021 applications by Sept. 30.

However, Morrison said the ruling gave the State Department "three outs" that effectively render the injunction useless, with the department excused for delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, resource limitations and "country constraints."

A State Department spokesperson told NBC News it was undertaking "good-faith efforts" to comply with Mehta's ruling.

"The State Department has instructed embassies and consulates to make every effort within their discretion and subject to resource constraints, limitations due to Covid-19 pandemic and country conditions to prioritize the scheduling and adjudication of DV-2021 cases," they said.

While the State Department was unable to provide in-person consular services for immigrant visas in Afghanistan, the spokesperson added that applicants could try to process their visas "outside of Afghanistan."

However, they acknowledged it was "currently extremely difficult" for Afghans leave their country and travel elsewhere.

A man walks with a child through Fort Bliss' Dona Ana Village in New Mexico, where Afghan refugees are being housed.David Goldman / AP file

Although they made it out, Salehy and Ahmad said repeated efforts to seek help from the U.S. Embassy in Poland ahead of the deadline had been rebuffed.

For U.S. diversity visa winners who are still in Afghanistan, the situation is also dire.

Mohammad Saeedi, 22, said Wednesday that he feared the Taliban would target him for attending the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, where he has almost completed a degree in accounting and finance.

Because it is affiliated with the U.S., the group see the institution's students "officially as infidels," said Saeedi, who is not part of Morrison's lawsuit.

On Friday, he said he was offered a last-minute interview at the U.S. Embassy's office in Islamabad, the capital of neighboring Pakistan, as part of the process for obtaining his diversity visa.

But he said the appointment is set for Sept. 28 — just two days before the deadline.

Saeedi added he was unsure whether he would be allowed to travel to Pakistan, and if he was, he said it would cost him hundreds of dollars. Even if he does make it, he said he was worried that he would not be issued the visa in time.

It's a far cry from the optimism he felt when he first learned that he had won the diversity visa lottery in June 2020. Back then, he said he thought it would allow him to join his sister, who was awarded a diversity visa several years ago, in the U.S., and he had hoped to start a career.

Saeedi said the American government should honor the promise it made to diversity visa winners "because it's our right." If it did not, he said, "I want the world to know that the U.S. left us behind."

"I had so many plans," he added. "But right now, I’m hopeless."

Abigail Williams contributed.