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Medal-Earning Soldier Becomes Citizen; Faced Deportation After Honorable Discharge

Yea Ji Sea takes the oath of citizenship. (KTLA)

Army Specialist Yea Ji Sea, who was honorably discharged earlier this month after four years of meritorious service received notice Aug. 17 from the U.S. Department of Justice that her long-delayed application for citizenship has been approved.

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California sued the federal government because Sea’s citizenship application had not been acted upon in nearly two years. Even though her forced discharge was labeled as honorable because of her service record, Sea was vulnerable after leaving the Army to being arrested and deported.

Her swearing-in ceremony as a citizen was held on Aug. 24 in Los Angeles.

“I love this country and was honored to serve it in the U.S. Army,” Sea said upon receiving the notice of her citizenship ceremony. “I had felt like I was an American since I was a child, growing up here. I had hoped for a long career in the Army, but I am so happy now that I will be a citizen.”

At a hearing on Aug. 14 in federal court in Los Angeles, U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald ordered the government to explain why it could not rule on Sea’s citizenship within three weeks.

“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, 29, of Gardena, who had been brought to this country from South Korea by her parents in 1998 and grew up in the Los Angeles area, enlisted in the Army in 2013 under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program. It 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.

The program was ready-made for Sea — she is fluent in Korean and qualified as a healthcare specialist.

Sea had a variety of postings during her time in the Army. While stationed in South Korea, she served as an ambulance aid driver and was the only pharmacy technician for the entire Camp Casey Combined Troop Station that served more than 1,800 soldiers. In her off hours, she served as a translator for doctors and helped care for injured soldiers.

Sea, stationed most recently at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, earned two Army Achievement Medals “for exceptionally meritorious service.” On Sept. 1, 2015, she was promoted to specialist.

The MAVNI program required inductees to apply for U.S. citizenship upon entering the military. Sea willingly applied, but unbeknownst to her, the owner of the school through which she had previously received a student visa had been working with a corrupt immigration agent to create false forms for visa applications. The school owner was later convicted and sent to prison.

During Sea’s interview then about her citizenship application, she nervously stated that a date on a false form drawn up for her by the immigration agent was accurate though it was not. Because of this mistake, her initial citizenship application was denied. But she was permitted to reapply after demonstrating, for at least one year, “good moral character.”

Sea did just that, reapplying on July 26, 2016, almost exactly two years ago. Until the ACLU lawsuit was filed, there seemed to be no action taken on the application, leaving her vulnerable to be deported by the country she served honorably.

Read the lawsuit filed on behalf of Sea:

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