AMERICA is supposed to be about fair play and equal opportunity. That is high among the reasons so many people around the world want to live in the United States. So it's ironic that last week's "green card" lottery was a mockery of fairness.The lottery was created by Congress last year as part of an immigration-reform package. Under the new law, some 700,000 newcomers are admitted to the US each year. Most arrive under provisions favoring close relatives of current residents (the majority of these family members come from Latin America and Asia), people with designated skills, and entrepreneurs starting businesses. However, the law also created a special category of immigrants from 34 nations, mostly in Europe, on the ground that would-be i mmigrants from those countries have been disadvantaged under US policy since 1965. Visas for permanent residency are to be awarded to this group - 40,000 for the first three years, 55,000 thereafter - according to an annual lottery. The first lottery set off an unseemly scramble among applicants - most of whom are already in the US, often illegally. Visas will be granted to the first 40,000 aliens whose valid applications arrived at a postal center in Merrifield, Va., after 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 14. At least 5,000 desperate hopefuls descended on Merrifield in the hours before the deadline. Many, with the help of organized interest groups, dumped hundreds of envelopes apiece into mail bins at the site. The post office accepted applications for five days (ultimately processing more than 5 million), but many experts agreed that applications received after the first few hours would be too late. The first-come, first-served procedure was fair only on its face. In fact, owing to the rule allowing multiple applications and sophisticated mailing strategies devised by immigration lawyers, the aspirant who, with a kiss and a prayer, sent off a solitary envelope from Warsaw or even Cleveland had almost no chance of winning one of the coveted visas. If the green-card lottery was questionable in practice, it's equally dubious in theory. It is largely the creation of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, at the instigation of the Irish lobby. As Irish applicants will receive 40 percent of the lottery visas for the first three years, the scheme can be regarded principally as an amnesty program for illegal Irish immigrants. Irish immigrants are as welcome in the US as those from any other country, but not more so. The reintroduction of nationality-based quotas, from which US immigration policy departed in '65, serves no national purpose. And the lottery could actually encourage illegal immigration by Europeans who see the lottery - though a long shot - as their best chance to obtain a US green card. The mad scramble ignited by the lottery, the insider tactics that favor some applicants over others, and the lottery's underlying departure from rational immigration criteria all serve to demean US immigration policy.