Would-Be Winners of Green Cards Sue U.S.

An American attorney is suing the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy on behalf of nine Russians who were denied immigration visas because their consular officers accused them of fraud.

The Russians were taking part in the United States' diversity immigrant visa program, commonly called "The Green Card Lottery," which gives citizens of designated countries the chance to receive permanent U.S. residency.

A State Department guideline mandates that the program deny visas to applicants who win interviews if the applicant fails to prove in the interview that he signed his original application.

During the interview, consular officers ask the applicant to sign a piece of paper then verify the signature by comparing it to signatures on other documents and on the application form.

Stating that consular officers are unqualified to make such determinations, the class-action lawsuit alleges that the signature guideline violates the Administrative Procedures Act because it is arbitrary and an abuse of discretion.

The suit, filed Dec. 14 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by attorney Kenneth White, compels the State Department to refer signatures by Green Card Lottery winners to expert forensic examiners at the Immigration and Naturalization Services in Washington and to issue visas to the plaintiffs.

Among the plaintiffs are Green Card winners in 2000 and 2001, whose appeals were denied, and a 2002 winner, whose case will remain open until the end of September.

The lawsuit comes at the end of months of struggle by White, who runs a small Moscow law firm specializing in immigration law, to get the embassy and State Department to reconsider six visa applicants in 2001.

Last year, White submitted sample signatures from them to the consular section and requested that it hand over copies of those taken at the interview to him and to forensic experts at the INS for analysis. The embassy refused to do both, White said.

In September, White submitted appeals to the legal section of the visa office at the State Department, asking them to order the embassy to forward the applications and signature specimens of six cases to the INS experts.

Two included evaluations of the signatures on the applications to other samples by private forensic analysts, who said they thought the signatures were most likely the same but could not make accurate assessments without the original documents.

On Sept. 26 -- four days before the deadline for issuing immigrant visas -- the embassy notified White the six appeals had been denied without mentioning results of the INS analysis.

In October, the embassy's visa section refused to share the results with White.

The legal division of the visa office in Washington sidestepped the results in a letter sent to White on Nov. 2, saying the embassy did request the INS to compare signatures appearing on all six petitions for consideration, but that "in each case, a consular officer in Moscow made the factual finding that the applicant did not use his or her usual signature on the petition ... and was therefore disqualified for consideration."

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy said the embassy cannot comment on ongoing court cases.

Alex Nicholson contributed to this article.