IN February, the United States Department of State announced it would, during March, accept applications for a lottery that will allocate 20,000 permanent residence visas. This week the department is up to its ears in lottery applications with unoffical estimates putting the number of entries received at 3.8 million.
The reason for the deluge is that Congress has decided that until new immigration legislation can be voted on, the best temporary means of easing immigration pressures is to hold a lottery.
Critics say the use of lotteries to decide who may live and work in the US is not a rational legislative approach. But Howard Berman (D) of California defends the OP-1 lottery he crafted, calling it a stopgap measure to block changes in immigration law proposed in the Senate.
``It's designed to meet the pressure of creating additional visas, but not favor a particular part of the world over another in the process,'' Mr. Berman says. ``If we relieve some of that pressure, we can get on with reforming'' immigration laws.
The Berman visa lottery plan differs markedly from a controversial lottery sponsored by Rep. Brian Donnelly (D) of Massachusetts two years ago. Mr. Donnelly's plan permitted individuals to apply up to 1,000 times. Berman's lottery allows one application per person.
The Berman lottery is also open to 162 countries that were issued fewer than 5,000 US visas last year. Only 12 nations were excluded.
By contrast, Donnelly's lottery involved only 36 countries of traditional origin ``disfavored'' by the 1965 immigration reform law.
Still, immigration lawyers, and others, criticize lotteries for their low-level publicity and short sign-up periods. More important, Theodore Ruthizer of the New York firm Cole & Dietz says, his clients think the lottery idea is totally ``irrational.''
``It's not a serious, comprehensive way to deal with the real ills of the immigration system,'' Mr. Ruthizer says.
Just what immigration system should be used will be the subject of great debate in Congress this year and next, says Timothy Whelan, deputy director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Boston.
``We will have to decide where we are as a country,'' Mr. Whelan says. ``Are we [a nation] that should be blind as far as race, national background, ethnicity, when we craft the laws? Or should we show a certain favoritism to those who helped build the country and make it what it is today?''
Legislation being considered in the Senate would decrease the percentage of visas currently allotted on the basis of family ties from 95 to 75 percent of all permanent-resident visas issued. It would increase the percentage issued to skilled workers from 5 to 25 percent. House legislation would keep the percentages the same, because ``to change them would immediately discriminate against Hispanic and Asian Americans,'' Berman contends.
``The question to be decided,'' says Patrick Burns of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, ``is do we take immigrants in on the basis of compassion ...'' or do we `` base our decision on the needs of the work force?''
Mr. Burns says US legislators also must ``consider that this is not a time when a strong back makes you employable.'' Yet the bulk of those who arrive in the US do compete with US workers.
John Murray, for example, is an illegal Irish immigrant hoping he will soon be one of 20,000 people to win US citizenship. Mr. Murray arrived in Boston from County Offaly in the Irish midlands three years ago. It wasn't hard to find work as a carpenter then, he says.
But with the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which fines employers of illegal aliens, $10,000 a head, times have changed.
``You move around more often,'' he says, ``and are wide open to exploitation because of the risk the employer is taking. Sometimes you don't get paid.''
Murray says he made good money last year, between $40,000 and $50,000 for a 65-hour workweek. If he returns to Ireland, job prospects are bleak.
On the other hand, Herman Rene Gonzales considers himself a refugee seeking political asylum, but is also applying to the lottery - just in case asylum is not granted. Mr. Gonzales came here illegally from Quezaltenango, Guatemala, two years ago. The Army, he says, tortured him and and killed his brother. Right now, he is permitted to work until his case is adjudicated.
Unlike Murray, Gonzales works between 70 and 90 hours a week packing vegetables for $6 an hour. But both men are pinning their hopes on the lottery to stay in the US. And both say, if they don't win, they may continue to live in the United States and work, legal or not.