LOS ANGELES -- Foreigners wanting to live in this country inundated the government with nearly 19 million applications for 40,000 slots in an immigration lottery held last month, nearly four times the number expected, according to figures released this week.
Now the applicants are being taken by surprise by a government decision to issue notifications to 50,000 people that they were winners and then let the first-round winners scramble for the 40,000 visas.
Mike Brennan, a spokesman for the State Department, said the extra notifications were aimed at covering any possible dropouts and urged the recipients to hurry.
MA The first 40,000 who complete the required documentation win.
"The 10,000 who do not make it will have to apply again next year," Mr. Brennan said.
"The race definitely is still on," said Eileen Madden, a 22-year-old applicant from Ireland who is among the first-round winners and who, like most applicants and even many immigration experts, was surprised to discover that the competition is not yet over.
"It's in the regulations, but I think people missed it," said Hope M. Frye, first vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "I think the average applicant is probably quite surprised to find this out."
The lottery was one of the stranger innovations in the 1990 immigration law, which allows for overall immigration of up to 700,000 people a year.
There have been two previous immigration lotteries, but this is thefirst to be written into law on a continuing basis and the first to attract such a large response.
The procedure is aimed at giving a boost to immigrants from 34 nations that have been underrepresented in recent years. A result of heavy lobbying by groups representing the 100,000 illegal immigrants from Ireland, the lottery includes a guarantee of at least 40 percent of the slots for the Irish.
But Irish applicants were swamped by other nationalities, and the search for Irish winners apparently slowed the processing of the results.
Some immigration lawyers question the legality of registering 50,000 applicants for the 40,000 places mandated by Congress. They also say it remains unclear how the 40 percent of Irish applicants admitted into the final leg of the race will translate into the 40 percent of winners called for by the law.
They say the lottery is a national embarrassment at a time when Haitian refugees are being sent back to sea and Vietnamese boat people are being denied asylum.
"I think there are real policy issues raised in how we are holding ourselves out to the world because of these visa lotteries," said Ms. Frye. "I wonder what kind of message we send to families who are waiting to be reunited, to employers seeking to bring in skilled workers and to all kinds of other refugees to whom we are denying entry."
In the cases of many people who have been living in the United States, all this will require a new gamble: a journey back to their homelands, where their applications will be processed by the local consular office.