Last month, the U.S. State Department told some 22,000 foreign applicants that they had won the jackpot  permission to immigrate to the United States, and reside and work here legally. Given that millions of foreigners apply for these green cards every year, the winners’ jubilation was understandable — but short-lived. The State Department shortly discovered an error in the process and informed the 22,000 via a Web page update that they were not, in fact, winners.

This green card program, also known as the annual diversity visa lottery, excludes candidates from nations already heavily represented in the United States, including China, India and Mexico. By broadening the class of immigrants to include underrepresented countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia and Nigeria, it gives hope to many seeking to escape oppressive regimes or severe economic marginalization who otherwise would be unable to immigrate.

Some of those denied permanent residency have launched an online campaign — a Facebook group called “22,000 Tears” — to protest the rescinding of their winning lottery notifications. One of their advocates, a Los Angeles-based immigration lawyer, is preparing a class-action lawsuit. We don’t think that legal action is justified or likely to succeed — but more can be done than merely an  internal State Department investigation into the technical glitch.

After the erroneous messages were delivered, State lawyers considered recourse for the misinformed parties. But they determined that, unless directed by Congress, Foggy Bottom possessed no latitude to extend legal immigration designations to the disappointed candidates. Congress stipulates that only 50,000 lottery candidates from a random drawing may be awarded such diversity visas each year. State is not pressing Congress to act so that additional green cards could be disseminated in this case. But we would.

The lottery error is more than a bureaucratic problem; it is a terrible “Peanuts”-style pulling-of-the-football for those affected. The government has no obligation to award the disappointed applicants visas — but why not do the right and merciful thing? Between State and the Department of Homeland Security, more than 1 million green cards are issued annually, so 22,000 isn’t a hefty addition. The government could turn a mistake into an opportunity to show inclusiveness and compassion for people from every quarter.

—The Washington Post  (June 12)