In spring 2015, Army Spec. Yea Ji Sea was stationed with the U.S. military in South Korea where she worked as a pharmacy tech, spending some of her time off translating for seriously ill soldiers at local hospitals.
She was working toward her dream of becoming an Army doctor and researching Lou Gehrig’s disease, which disproportionately affects soldiers.
Around the same time, across the Pacific in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, immigration agents were raiding the offices of Hee Sun Shim, who ran a network of schools in Los Angeles that authorities said was a front for a visa fraud.
Unbeknownst to Sea, who was born in South Korea, Shim had years earlier conspired with a corrupt immigration agent to obtain fraudulent immigration forms, one of which was included in a student visa application filed on Sea’s behalf by her then-attorney when she was 19.
Now, after Sea served more than four years in the Army, that piece of paper has derailed her military career and put her immigration status in jeopardy.
On Tuesday, a federal judge in downtown Los Angeles held a hearing on Sea’s lawsuit against the U.S. government asking for a determination on her citizenship application, which has been pending for more than two years.
The unusually lengthy delay, her attorneys said, is part of a pattern under the Trump administration of making it more difficult for foreign-born people to enlist in the military and become U.S. citizens through their service.
While her immigration case remained pending, the Army honorably discharged Sea last month because her student visa application was invalid, leaving her unable to work and vulnerable to deportation at any point.
“She was a victim of the crime, not somebody who got prosecuted,” said her immigration attorney, Margaret Stock, a retired lieutenant colonel in U.S. Army Reserve. “They’re trying to justify why they’re kicking all these immigrants out of the Army.”
Sea enlisted and served in the Army under the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, a recruitment effort started in 2008 under President George W. Bush to enroll immigrants in the country on temporary status with valuable medical, language or cultural skills that would benefit the U.S. military. Those who enlisted were put on a fast track to citizenship. More than 10,000 foreign-born soldiers joined through the program.
The program was suspended in 2016 because of what a spokeswoman said was an internal determination that it was “vulnerable to an unacceptable level of risk from insider threats such as espionage, terrorism and other criminal activity.”
In recent months, a number of recruits admitted under the program have been discharged without explanation, according to immigration attorneys. Some have been arrested or placed under GPS monitoring. Several have sued, challenging the decision.
In a class-action lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., on behalf of recruits and soldiers whose immigration cases remain in limbo, attorneys estimated that as many as 2,500 may be in a similar predicament.
Sea arrived in the U.S. with her family in 1998 as a 9-year-old on a tourist visa, oblivious to the intricacies of the U.S. immigration system as her parents switched over to a two-year investor visa. She grew up in Koreatown and Torrance before moving to Texas to attend a boarding school.
In 2008, when she was 19, an attorney filed an application on her behalf to change her immigration status to an F-1 student visa enrolled at Neo-America Language School in Koreatown. Part of the application was a form from Customs and Border Protection officer Michael Anders, who was allegedly receiving bribes for bogus forms indicating a false date of arrival for visa applicants.
Sea said that when she was in her mid-20s and unsure about her future, her mother saw a Korean-language Army recruitment ad about the program for foreign-born soldiers.
She enlisted in October 2013. Serving as a healthcare specialist, she was stationed in Oklahoma, Texas and Camp Casey in South Korea, and received two achievement medals during her service.
After she learned she was being discharged from the Army, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on her behalf in July. In the suit, her attorneys noted that a former platoon sergeant wrote of Sea: “She is serving the United States Army, volunteers for deployments willing to die for a country she loves.... I would trust her with my life.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, a Justice Department attorney said Sea’s immigration interview had been scheduled for Wednesday morning, and that her case would be decided within 120 days after the interview.
The government had been waiting for the fraud case to play out in court, Assistant U.S. Atty. Timothy Biche told the judge. Shim was sentenced in April to 15 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit immigration fraud.
U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald said he would give the government until Sept. 5 to make a determination in Sea’s case or to prove there was a valid reason for the delay.
A Defense Department spokeswoman declined to discuss Sea’s case, citing pending litigation.
Sea said she was still hopeful the Army will reverse its decision and she could continue her service. She said she was troubled to hear about what her fellow foreign-born recruits were going through.
“I don’t know much about the law, but I know what’s right and wrong,” she said. “Here’s someone who would die for your country.… These soldiers are sincere, they will do anything for this country.”
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