When Danut Mitroi, 48,  first heard about the United States Diversity Visa Lottery, he thought it was a

The Mitrois years later at their daughter's graduation

The Mitrois years later at their daughter's graduation

joke.  “It didn’t cost that much—just the price of a stamp,” he said.  “I told my wife [about it], but she said we weren’t that lucky.”

Mitroi, a molecular biologist, read about the first United States Diversity Visa Lottery in his local newspaper in Romania in 1995.  The lottery is an opportunity for natives of countries with low levels of immigration to the U.S. to obtain visas, and live and work permanently in the country.  Each year, this congressionally mandated program makes 50,000 immigrant visas available through a random drawing of people who have applied and meet the eligibility requirements.

Mitroi and his wife were eligible candidates. So he applied twice, once under each of their names.  To be eligible for the lottery, one must be a native of a country deemed eligible to participate or married to a native of such a country.  One may also be eligible if one of his or her parents was born in a country eligible to participate.

There are a handful of countries that are ineligible, however, because they are already well-represented by the number of immigrants present in America.  The excluded countries for the 2010 diversity lottery include Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born, excluding Hong Kong S.A.R., and Taiwan), Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, South Korea, United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam.

Lottery candidates must have successfully completed a 12-year course of elementary and secondary education or have at least two years of work experience within the last five years in an occupation that requires two years of training.

Six months after sending in the initial application, which was at the time a “crude form,” as Mitroi recalled, the Mitrois received a package of papers that included more involved forms to fill out.  Three months after that, they received an even bigger package that told them they had actually won the lottery.

“I was very joyful,” said Mitroi.  “I came home and showed the package to [my wife] and we began to sing the song the Romanian soccer team sung when they…were going to the World Cup.”

The Mitrois then submitted more information, this time to the American consulate in Romania and had a two-hour interview at the consulate before they knew if they would be issued visas.

“We were lucky because the American consulate said we would be good citizens and we could get a visa,” said Mitroi.

By this time it was 1995, two years after the Mitrois had entered the lottery.  After the interview, Mitroi bought plane tickets to America, quit his job as a researcher and began selling his belongings.

“We cut most of the bridges we had in our country. We had nothing left there except our relatives. No house—nothing to return to. It was our intention to become American citizens,” he said.

The Mitrois brought their daughter, Lavinia, who was five at the time, with them to America.  The diversity lottery allows winners to bring to the U.S. spouses and unmarried children.

Being accepted as a winner in the lottery, however, is not a guarantee that one will receive a visa.  A greater number of applicants are accepted because not everyone who is accepted will be qualified or complete the process.  When all 50,000 immigrant visas have been distributed, the program is completed for the year.

Although it doesn’t cost anything to apply for the lottery, people who win must pay for their immigrant visas and an additional visa lottery surcharge.  To participate in the Diversity Visa Lottery, look for information on the State Department website.  Instructions, published in a press release and the Federal Register, are usually posted online in August, allowing the registration period to begin in October.

Those who make it through the entire process usually have an easier time achieving permanent resident status than those pursuing immigration on their own.  Five years after becoming permanent residents, they are eligible to become American citizens.

Winning the lottery and being able to become a U.S. citizen “felt like getting accepted to college,” said Mitroi.  “It was like when [my daughter] was accepted to Harvard.”