LOS ANGELES — Immigration officials have three weeks to decide whether to approve the citizenship application of a South Korean-born U.S. Army specialist who is suing after the military discharged her, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Yea Ji Sea filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security last month after the military moved to discharge her.
The woman 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.
Sea, 29, alleges in her lawsuit that the government improperly failed to process her application.
She sat in the front row of a Los Angeles courtroom on Tuesday as U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald said he expected the government to rule on Sea's citizenship by Sept. 5 or explain any reason for a delay.
Sea is scheduled to have an interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Biche said. The government wants to resolve her citizenship application quickly, but first officials have to hear what she says in the interview, Biche said.
In the meantime, Sea is suffering "serious harm" because she cannot legally work in the U.S. and fears she could be arrested by immigration officers, said Sameer Ahmed, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, who is representing Sea.
"As a soldier, I would think that I would be protected by at least some kind of law that would say, 'I shouldn't have to worry about driving back home,'" Sea said outside the courthouse. "I was really thinking it would be OK."
Ahmed believes Sea's case is part of a greater effort by the Trump administration to deny citizenship to soldiers "based on the fact that they don't believe immigrants should get the right to citizenship that they're owed," he said.
The Associated Press reported last month immigration attorneys knew of more than 40 U.S. Army reservists and recruits who enlisted in the military with a promised path to citizenship and have been discharged or whose status has become questionable, jeopardizing their futures.
The Army has since temporarily stopped discharging immigrant recruits, pending a review of the program.
Sea, who has received two Army achievement medals, 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 said at first she didn't really grasp what the Army was, but fell in love with it after joining. She said she hopes to one day rejoin the Army to serve as a physician.
Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.