Specialist Facing Army Discharge Sues for Citizenship

An Army drill instructor marches with soldiers at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where Specialist Yea Ji Sea is assigned. Her application for U.S. citizenship has been pending for more than two years. (US Army photo/Jose Rodriguez)
An Army drill instructor marches with soldiers at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where Specialist Yea Ji Sea is assigned. Her application for U.S. citizenship has been pending for more than two years. (US Army photo/Jose Rodriguez)

LOS ANGELES -- An Army specialist born in South Korea has sued to demand a response to her U.S. citizenship application after the military moved to discharge her.

Yea Ji Sea, a 29-year-old from Gardena, California, who has served four years and is assigned to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, filed a lawsuit Thursday in federal court.

She came to the country as a child on a visitor visa and held other visas before enlisting in 2013 under a special government program for foreign citizens who want to serve in the U.S. military. Under the program, recruits agreed in their enlistment contracts to apply to naturalize as soon as their honorable service was certified.

"She has a citizenship application that has been pending for over two years and she is entitled to citizenship," said Sameer Ahmed, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California who is representing Sea. "They haven't made good on that promise."

A Department of Justice spokesman declined to comment on the case. Messages were sent to the Defense Department and Army seeking comment.

The lawsuit comes as the Army has moved in recent weeks to discharge immigrant recruits and reservists who enlisted through the program, through which immigrants historically vowed to risk their lives for the prospect of U.S. citizenship.

Nearly 110,000 members of the Armed Forces have gained citizenship by serving in the U.S. military since Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Defense Department. The Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, however, was ultimately suspended.

Sea is a health care specialist and pharmacy technician who was stationed in South Korea and has received two Army Achievement medals. She applied to naturalize in 2014 but was denied after immigration officials alleged there had been a fraudulent document in an earlier student visa application.

Sea believed the paperwork she obtained through an approved language school was legitimate, according to the lawsuit, but the school's owner was convicted in a fraud case.

Sea reapplied for U.S. citizenship in 2016, but has not yet received an answer on her application. Once discharged from the military, she can't work legally in the United States and could face deportation proceedings.

Sea was called into a commander's office on Thursday and told she would receive an honorable discharge, Ahmed said.

The lawsuit seeks to compel the U.S. government to give Sea a naturalization interview and decide on her application within 20 days.

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