WASHINGTON (AFP) - Around 100,000 people were chosen from several million on Wednesday to get a head-start on a US Green Card, in what could be the last such annual lottery, slated to vanish under proposed reforms.
Created in 1995, the lottery system leads to the awarding of 50,000 permanent residency permits each year to people from countries that send relatively few emigrants to the United States.
But it has long been in the crosshairs of US Republican lawmakers, who control the House of Representatives and have included a plan to scrap it in the comprehensive immigration reforms currently being debated in Congress.
A final vote on the reforms is not expected before this summer, but if they pass, the so-called diversity visas would vanish from next year.
This year's crop of hopefuls did not know when they applied that this might be their last chance, as would-be immigrants had to file a free online application in October 2012.
From 1600 GMT on Wednesday, the candidates were finally able to check their status on the government website www.dvlottery.state.gov, using their personal confirmation number.
For Yuri Jacquet, 28, this is his sixth failed attempt to win a visa. "It's a little discouraging," admitted the entrepreneur, who has built a website selling clothes and works between Martinique and the US state of Florida.
"Each time, you tell yourself the next time will be the one." Some 100,000 names were selected in a first round, because not everyone will complete the process for a visa, and a maximum of 50,000 Green Cards will ultimately be given out.
In last year's lottery, 7.9 million people, with 4.6 million spouses and children, submitted applications.
More than 18,000 Africans got Green Cards through the lottery the year before, the most from any continent. Half of the lottery is reserved for applicants from Africa, who could now lose out.
Mamina Ezra, a 28-year-old Ethiopian, was one of the lucky ones this year - her 11th try.
"I'm still in shock," she told AFP. "I was so used to losing that this has really shocked me." Ezra, who earned an advanced business degree in New York, was going to have to return to Ethiopia this summer if she couldn't find an employer willing to sponsor her for a visa.
French engineering student Nathaniel Assayag, 23, at New York's Columbia University, wasn't as lucky, but he is one of the people who may fare better under the proposed reforms.
"Participating in the lottery was, for me, a way to take the fast lane" to immigration, he said.
"Getting an H-1B work visa (a temporary visa) is very difficult because, even if your company is ready to sponsor you, the quotas are much lower than the demand," he said.
The proposed reforms massively increase the number of Green Cards and visas allocated to highly qualified workers - and, in particular, students like Assayag, getting degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math.
The winners of this year's lottery will be given interviews from October, where they will have to show proof of a high school diploma or at least two years of work experience, as required under the programme.
Countries that sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the past five years are excluded from the lottery.
This year that includes a range of countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, mainland China, Mexico, Pakistan, South Korea, and Britain, except Northern Ireland.