WASHINGTON (CN) – Winners of the 2017 diversity visa lottery from among the six countries covered under President Trump’s immigration ban brought a federal complaint against the State Department Thursday over the agency’s refusal to issue their visas.
The lawsuit filed Thursday represents the first challenge to President Trump’s executive order on immigration that will look at the distinction between the issuance of visas and entry into the country.
The named Yemeni and Iranian plaintiffs – Afshan Asadi Sorkhab, Neda Heidari Dehkordi, Hamed Sufyan Othaman Almaqrami and Radad Fauiz Furooz – are seeking a temporary restraining order to force the State Department to issue their visas before the program’s cut-off date. Otherwise, they claim “they will lose their golden ticket.”
“For the affected lottery winners, the stakes are high and the situation is urgent: By statute, lottery winners must have their visas in hand by September 30, 2017 or they lose their chance to become Americans,” the 20-page complaint states.
The lawsuit names secretary of state Rex Tillerson and 50 unnamed consular officials as defendants.
President Trump’s executive order is set to expire on September 24, but the plaintiffs say that will leave the State Department insufficient time – only one week – to process their visas.
Although the lawsuit does not directly challenge Trump’s immigration ban, it claims the State Department has conflated the issuing of visas with entry.
“Visa issuance and entry are handled by different executive agencies and components, and occur at different times,” the complaint states. “The Order did not expressly prohibit visa issuance.”
Still, the lawsuit claims the agency has implemented a policy of denying diversity visas to applicants from Iran, Somalia, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Sudan – all Muslim-majority countries.
According to Yolanda Rondon with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, her clients have been told they will be denied unless they have a bonafide relationship to the U.S.
One of them received consulate documents that cited the executive order as a basis for denial, she said.
“We have the proof, we have the emails that this is happening,” Rondon said in a phone interview.
The State Department did not return a request seeking comment on the policy or the lawsuit.
According to the complaint, U.S. law requires the State Department to issue the diversity visas, and the travel ban doesn’t change that.
“The Executive Order does not purport to prohibit the issuance of diversity visas that must be issued by September 30. It simply issues a temporary bar on entrance for certain nationals of six countries, which is due to expire in late September 2017,” the lawsuit states.
According to Rondon, denying her clients visas on the basis of the executive order is illegal, and violates the Immigration Nationality Act.
The 90-day immigration ban uses a national security argument to deny nationals from the six countries entry, essentially arguing that the U.S. lacks sufficient information about these individuals to safely admit them.
But according to Rondon, the national security argument lacks merit in relation to her clients. She pointed out that diversity visa lottery winners aren’t required to use their visas, and must still pass inspection and be admitted at a U.S. port of entry.
“They key in these cases is that these security measures have to occur – and have often times already occurred – for these diversity visa winners,” she said. “These people have already passed these security measures.”
As far as she is aware, Rondon said only visa winners from the travel ban countries are being denied. That signifies to her that the State Department is trying to “run out the clock” on the travel ban in order to keep Muslims and Arabs out of the country.
“They’re trying to have a pretext basis to deny them when the intention is to keep the Arabs and Muslims out, and to essentially enforce the Muslim ban,” she said.
According to the complaint, 50,000 people won immigrant visas this year to come to the U.S. through the diversity visa lottery. The program encourages immigration from countries that have historically sent low numbers of people to the country, and entitles approved winners to a green card, which gives them lawful permanent resident status.
They have up to six months to enter the country once they receive their immigrant visas.
Attorneys from Washington-based Jenner & Block LLC, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center joined the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in filing the lawsuit.
They have asked for class certification to cover all six banned countries, Rondon said, because they assume it might be happening to others.
Rondon said a preliminary hearing could happen as early as next week.