Last week, Yea Ji Sea packed her life into a Prius and began the long drive home from Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to Los Angeles.
Before starting out, she searched for information on the internet about immigration checkpoints. Instead of taking the shortest route home, she veered a couple hundred miles north to take Interstate 40, which people online advised would be safer.
She had served four years in the U.S. Army, but after the South Korean-born soldier was honorably discharged, Sea was left without a valid immigration status. One wrong encounter with law enforcement could mean being deported from the country where she has lived since she was 9.
On Friday, Sea learned she will no longer have to fear deportation. After a lengthy delay of more than two years that her attorneys said was emblematic of the treatment of foreign-born soldiers under the Trump administration, Sea, 29, will be naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
The decision came after Sea sued the Department of Homeland Security this year for a determination on her immigration application.
Immigration attorneys in different parts of the country have said they noticed a pattern of abrupt military dismissals of foreign-born recruits in recent months. Some of them were subsequently arrested or placed on house arrest, the lawyers said.
A federal judge on Tuesday ordered the government to decide Sea’s case or offer a valid reason by Sept. 5 for the delay. After media reports, immigration authorities set a date for Sea’s interview for this week, according to her attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Sea joined the military through the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, started under President George W. Bush to enlist foreign-born recruits with valuable skills to the military. The immigrant soldiers were put on a fast track to citizenship for serving the country.
Sea’s application, however, was jeopardized because of a Koreatown immigration fraud case in which the operator of a language school conspired with a corrupt Customs and Border Patrol official to falsify records. The school owner, Hee Sun Shim, was sentenced to prison this year for what authorities said was a visa mill scheme.
When Sea was 19, an attorney had made an application on her behalf for a student visa from that language school. The paperwork included a form — stamped by the rogue Border Patrol official — that gave an incorrect date for when she entered the U.S.
At her first citizenship interview in 2014, Sea, who wasn’t represented by an attorney, told immigration officials that the date was accurate. Her application was denied because of the false statement, but she was told she could again apply in a year.
“You're not required to be perfect to become an American citizen. You just need to show good moral character for the required period of time,” said Margaret Stock, Sea’s immigration attorney. Stock is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve who helped create the recruitment program.
Sea applied again for citizenship in 2016 and had remained in limbo ever since.
In July, the Army honorably discharged her, finding that the fraud case rendered her student visa invalid at the time she enlisted under the recruitment program. As a healthcare specialist and pharmacy tech, Sea had served in Oklahoma, Texas and Camp Casey in South Korea, and received two achievement medals during her service.
She had dreamed of becoming an Army doctor and researching Lou Gehrig’s disease, which disproportionately affects soldiers.
“I know how much soldiers sacrifice,” she said. “Those people work hard every day, it definitely made me proud of what I am.”
From the moment she signed up at a recruitment center in a Torrance mall, through basic training in Oklahoma winters and after she twice failed her physical fitness test before eventually passing, she never thought about giving up, Sea said.
“It wasn't an option for me to fail,” she said. “I needed to stay here, at home.”
Now that her immigration case is over, Sea said she will explore her options to challenge her discharge from the military. She will be naturalized Aug. 24.