South Korean woman who served in Army will become American citizen
By ANDRE MOUCHARD | The Orange County Register | Published: August 18, 2018
LOS ANGELES (Tribune News Service) — Army Specialist Yea Ji Sea got a date Friday that will change her life:
On Aug. 24, the South Korean national will be sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
The notice, delivered via email from the Dept. of Justice, provided a welcome ending to a long-running saga that involved a post-9/11 immigration program, the American Civil Liberties Union, and at least one indicted customs agent.
“I had felt like I was like I was an American since I was a child, growing up here,” said Sea, 29, after learning of her swearing-in date.
“I had hoped for a long career in the Army, but I am so happy now that I will be a citizen.”
Sea, 29, came to the United States in 1998 and grew up in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles and, later, Gardena.
In 2013, she enlisted in the Army as part of a program known as Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI. The program, launched in 2009 by the George W. Bush administration, allows recruitment of non-citizens who have skills critical to the needs of the U.S. military, including physicians, nurses and experts in certain foreign languages. Sea is fluent in Korean and worked as a healthcare specialist – including driving an ambulance – during her four years of active duty.
But the MAVNI program is just one example of a long-standing tradition of immigrants serving in the American military as a way to earn their citizenship. As many as one-third of the 300,000 men and women who wore American uniforms during World War II were not citizens at the time. And immigrant warriors have been part of every major American conflict since.
But in recent years, as President Donald Trump’s administration has cracked down on immigration, the numbers of immigrants in the military have dropped and immigrant veterans have faced resistance when applying for citizenship. And the MAVNI program – which currently includes about 10,000 people – reportedly isn’t taking new applicants.
Also, a history of military service hasn’t protected immigrants from being swept up in immigration crackdowns. Several Mexican nationals who served in the U.S. military recently have been deported, according to published reports.
Sea could have faced a similar fate.
She left the military earlier this month, forced out with an honorable discharge, ending what was described by all parties as enthusiastic and meritorious service on her part. Though she left with a long list of character references from her military superiors, the woman who wanted to be an Army doctor had no promise of citizenship, something she believed was part of the deal when she signed on.
The problem reportedly stemmed from inaccurate paperwork created without her knowledge when she attended a language school in Los Angeles a decade ago.
The school, according to court records, worked with a corrupt U.S. Customs & Border Patrol agent to create false forms that would help tuition-paying students obtain legal status to attend the school. The agent was indicted and the owner of the school was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.
And Sea’s paperwork, which included a visa application from that school, was deemed questionable.
The ACLU filed suit on Sea’s behalf when she hadn’t received an answer on her citizenship question for about two years. Sea and her attorneys attended a hearing this week with immigration officials, who heard from supporters in the military and others.
The Dept. of Justice response, delivered Friday, came fewer than 48 hours after the hearing.
“While it shouldn’t have taken our lawsuit for this decorated veteran to get her U.S. citizenship, we are glad the government has made good on its promise under its enlistment program,” said ACLU SoCal staff attorney Sameer Ahmed.
Sea’s plan is to attend medical school.
“I love this country and was honored to serve it in the U.S. Army.”