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Saturday, August 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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When visa expires, reality sets in

Seattle Times staff reporter

In the end, the so-called green-card lottery — with odds only slightly better than hitting a $40 million jackpot — may be Blerta Picari's best hope for legal and permanent residence in the United States.

Today, the 23-year-old Albanian, who came to the U.S. as an exchange student five years ago, is returning home to her ailing mother, knowing she won't be allowed back into the U.S.

Picari, who earned a bachelor's degree in international studies from The Evergreen State College last December and is working as an assistant in the University of Washington's College of Engineering, has explored every legal option that would allow her to live here.

But her best efforts and those of a cadre of friends, co-workers, professors and immigration attorneys, uncovered a disappointing truth: There's no simple path to U.S. permanent residency. There's no employer or family member to petition on her behalf. She has no plans to marry a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and doesn't qualify for asylum or as a refugee, abuse or trafficking victim or terrorist informer.

Hers is the story of untold numbers of foreigners who came to the country as students, workers or visitors and are desperate to find a legal way to stay, but have little hope of doing so.

For many like Picari, their best hope hinges on a once-a-year lottery, the so-called diversity visa, for which the government randomly draws the names of 50,000 foreigners for a shot at permanent residency.

Only citizens of countries with low immigration to the U.S. over the previous five years qualify. Lucky for Picari, Albania traditionally is among them.

From a pool of nearly 6 million applicants, those who won a chance to apply for a visa in the 2005 lottery have already been notified.

Picari wasn't among them.

She'll apply again for the 2006 lottery and again after that. But given the odds, she knows her chances aren't good.

John Keeley, with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, said as unforgiving as the laws may appear, they are in many ways still too lenient.

"If we open the borders to people with good intentions, we'd have tens of millions of people trying to get in," said Keeley, whose organization supports stricter enforcement of immigration laws.

"We have to have an orderly system, a restrictive system and right now we have precious little in the way of restrictions."

While the popular stereotype of illegal immigrants is of Mexicans who sneak across the border, in reality more than a third of the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country are foreigners who overstayed nonimmigrant visas.

They include people from all kinds of backgrounds: Asians, Canadians, Western Europeans, Russians.

"The problem with the current system is that all these temporary visas — student, employment — end up being back doors to permanent immigration," Keeley continued. "If people are coming here on a temporary visa, it should be just that — temporary."

Picari doesn't agree.

"There are hundreds of people who would sign a petition today for me to stay here," she said. "But none of that matters. I think there should be exceptions for people who've come here and demonstrated good citizenship and proven they can be productive members of society."

For those who get their first taste of American life while young, the prospect of giving it up can be difficult, said Curt DeVere, director of the UW's International Services Office.

"They quickly lose their contact with their home country and after a few years this becomes the only place they've known," he said.

Visas tough to acquire

Picari came to the U.S. in 1999 as part of a global exchange program called AYUSA — Academic Year in the USA — in which students spend a high-school year abroad.

Then 18, she requested a big U.S. city with warm weather. The program placed her in Eatonville, Pierce County.

She had to look it up on the map.

With a J-1 exchange-visitor visa, Picari completed her senior year. After graduation, she got an F-1 student visa to attend Pierce College.

Her parents applied for but were denied travel visas to attend each graduation ceremony.

Because U.S. immigration law presumes that every visitor-visa applicant intends to stay here, consulate officials consider, among other things, how likely a person is to return home.

"It's kind of like examining an octopus: They look at each tentacle — mostly family and economic ties — to see where they're stuck," said Cletus Weber, a Seattle immigration attorney and vice chairman of the Washington Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

If all the applicant's connections are to the home country, the chances of getting a visa are better, he said. "Once you get one [connection] in the United States — a parent, grandparent, sibling — then the likelihood of getting the visa goes down."

To ease the financial burden on her parents, who struggled to pay for her education, Picari got what work she could within the limits of her student visa.

An international-student scholarship paid a third of her tuition at Evergreen State, and she worked hard to complete her bachelor's in international studies in one year and three months.

Her student visa allowed her one year of optional professional training after she graduated last December.

Each day, she commutes from her home in south Tacoma to her job as a development assistant in the UW College of Engineering. She assumed the UW would sponsor her for permanent residency, which is the second-most-common way for foreigners to get a green card. The most-popular is a petition by a family member.

But DeVere, of the International Services Office, said such sponsorships are available at the UW only to those in certain faculty-level positions.

Picari learned that option was closed to her at the same time she found out her mother had suffered a second serious heart attack.

She hadn't seen her family in five years.

It was time to go home.

But she knew she almost certainly would not be allowed back.

In her frantic search for a way to stay, she got a crash course in the complexity of the immigration system, which has a different type of visa for all but four of the 26 letters of the alphabet — but none Picari qualified for.

With only a bachelor's degree, she likely lacks the skills needed to market herself to a potential employer who might petition for her to receive a work visa. Many who get the so-called H1B (employment) visas are able to parlay them into the more-coveted green card, the permanent-residence card.

Picari gave herself six weeks to pack up her life in the U.S. before her flight home today. In Albania, a mostly Muslim country, it is unseemly for a young woman to live on her own, so Picari will live with her parents in a one-bedroom house in the capital city of Tirana.

A job teaching English to Albanians, if she can find it, will fetch about $50 a month.

"I finished what I came here to do," she said. "I completed high school and went to college. All I can do now is pack my two little suitcases and go home."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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