New York - From Romania to Nepal, they call it the "golden ticket," a diversity visa lottery that offers citizens of countries with low immigration rates a chance to come to the United States.
Among the winners are a family of software engineers from Bulgaria, a physician and his lawyer wife from from Romania, and hundreds of thousands of others from around the world.
On Wednesday, the program became best known as the entrance portal for Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old man from Uzbekistan who came to this country on a diversity visa seven years ago and is accused of mowing down pedestrians and cyclists on a Manhattan bike path this week.
President Donald Trump - who along with some Republican lawmakers had previously called for ending the Diversity Visa lottery program - doubled down Wednesday, saying before a Cabinet meeting, "We need to get rid of the lottery program as soon as possible."
In his tweets, the president jabbed at the Democratic senator from New York who helped create the program in 1990.
CHAIN MIGRATION must end now! Some people come in, and they bring their whole family with them, who can be truly evil. NOT ACCEPTABLE! pic.twitter.com/PQGeTTdRtX
Just spoke to President Macri of Argentina about the five proud and wonderful men killed in the West Side terror attack. God be with them!
NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!
The visa program, also known as the green-card lottery, issues up to 50 000 visas a year to people from dozens of countries, a tiny fraction of the roughly 1 million green cards the government issues annually. The aim is to mix up the nation's melting pot.
The lottery is unusual because it does not require foreigners to obtain a sponsor - such as an employer or a relative - to come to the United States. Originally conceived as a way to help Irish citizens fleeing an economic crisis back home, the only requirement is that entrants be adults with a high school diploma or two years of recent work experience. Winners can bring their spouses and minor children. There is no application fee.
Millions apply each year, and fewer than 1 percent are randomly selected to undergo background checks and, if they pass, receive a green card, which grants them permanent residency in the United States and puts them on a path to American citizenship. About 500 000 people have come to the United States through the program since 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.
Supporters say the lottery enhances the nation's diversity, presents a welcoming face to the world and, overwhelmingly, brings law-abiding, productive residents to the United States. For immigrants, it is a life-changing experience.
Africa and Eastern Europe account for two-thirds of the lottery winners in recent years. Countries that have sent at least 50 000 people to the United States in the past five years - such as Brazil, Canada, China and Mexico - cannot participate.
Livia and Adrian Lungulescu, a married couple in their 30s from Romania, came to this country on visas for his medical residency, applied for the lottery to stay permanently and won in 2009. Now they are both US citizens. He treats patients from an office in New Hampshire and she represents immigrants in Boston.
"It's something that helps people," Livia Lungulescu said. "It helps the professionals and the high school graduates, not somebody that's coming here to destroy America."
Plamena Petrova, a 31-year-old software engineer in Houston who works for FitBit, said her parents struggled with their software business in Bulgaria before her mother won the visa lottery in 1999, when she was 12. Petrova went on to graduate from an Ivy League college and also worked for the Navy and a defense contractor. Her father is a software engineer at Boeing, working on the International Space Station at NASA.
"This country was built on immigrants," Petrova said. "Diversity is part of the game. You need new ideas."
The lottery, which has been managed by the State Department since it began in 1995, has raised concerns in the past, including in a 2007 Government Accountability Report that said it was vulnerable to scams. The report also cited concerns from federal officials that the lottery allowed applicants from countries whose governments are sponsors of terrorism.
Egyptian Hesham Mohamed Ali Hedayet, who shot and killed two people at Los Angeles International Airport on July 4, 2002, came to the United States after his wife won the visa lottery. Mohamed Atta, another Egyptian and one of the September 11, 2001, suicide pilots, applied for the lottery twice before entering the United States on a different visa to study aviation.
Winners undergo intense vetting, including criminal background checks and medical examinations. In the 2007 report, the GAO "found no documented evidence that DV immigrants from these, or other, countries posed a terrorist or other threat."
Immigration legislation that passed Senate in 2013 but died in the House would have ended the program in exchange for legal residency for millions of undocumented immigrants already in the United States. A bill proposed in August that would slash legal immigration levels in half over a decade also would eliminate the lottery program.
The fiscal 2019 visa lottery is currently taking applications, with a deadline of noon Eastern time on November 22. Winners are scheduled to be chosen in May.