Originally published by The Washington Post
She had been bracing for the bad news. It landed last month.
U.S. Army Spec. Yea Ji Sea, a medic at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, was called in to her commander’s office. The senior officer explained to the 29-year-old that her time in uniform was over. He said he was sorry, Sea would later recall. He promised she still had the military’s support. But for now, Sea was being honorably discharged because of her immigration status.
Born in South Korea, Sea had come to the United States on a visitor’s visa in 1998, when she was 9. At 26, she joined the Army, hoping to tap a program allowing active-duty service members to earn their U.S. citizenship. But Sea’s naturalization application had been stymied throughout her decorated 4½ years as a soldier. Now she was out.
Absorbing the news, Sea was initially optimistic that her chosen career in the service would not be cut short. Since her first hours of basic training, the Army had drilled into Sea ideas about service and duty, placing the Army and country first. As she explained to The Washington Post this week, Sea figured the loyalty ran both ways — the Army would fix this.
“I wasn’t so worried,” she explained. “I thought I really had their support when they said that. I thought it was going to be somehow okay, that they wouldn’t kick me out because it’s just not right, and it’s legally wrong. I believed them because I was stupid.”
That optimism has drained away.
Following the news of her discharge, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in July on the specialist’s behalf against the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The federal complaint argues that U.S. officials have improperly failed to process her rightful naturalization application. The complaint asks a judge to force the government to rule on her application within 20 days.
Her attorney maintains that Sea’s situation syncs with a wider pattern of booting immigrant service members from the military because of President Trump’s hard-line immigration policy.
“They’re trying to discharge her now, and it’s part of a larger anti-immigration scheme of the Trump administration,” Sameer Ahmed, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, told The Post.
Sea’s situation has reached a critical point. Her honorable discharge is scheduled to take effect Friday. Without valid immigration status, she will be unable to work and subject to deportation. On Friday, she could end up leaving the base in federal custody.
“My biggest fear right now is my commander calling ICE,” she told The Post as she packed up her home at the base in Texas. “I’ve been unofficially warned that ICE might come to pick me up. After 4½ years, once I get my discharge papers, my reality is ICE might come pick me up.”
Neither the DHS nor USCIS responded immediately to a request for comment.
According to her lawsuit, between January 1998 and March 2008, Sea remained in the United States on a visitor visa and an investor visa as a dependent. In March 2008, she filed paperwork to apply for an F-1 student visa, which was granted in October 2008.
The possibility of obtaining her U.S. citizenship is what drew her to the Army.
By Sea’s account, in her early 20s, she was rudderless, floating around with little idea about what she wanted to do with her life. Then she learned about the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI. Under the program, noncitizens “lawfully present” in the country are able to enlist in the military and work for their citizenship. As the recipient of an F-1 visa and a native Korean speaker, she qualified.
“I figured I’d join, work for it, get my citizenship and have a chance at a normal life,” Sea said.
She enlisted in October 2013. Because she comes from a nonmilitary background, the decision shocked her friends and family. Basic training delivered its own surprises for the recruit. The grueling physical training, being surrounded by mostly male cohorts, the Army’s discipline and codes — it was an adjustment.
“You definitely learn to be part of a whole new culture. It’s a different way of life, and they shape you to it,” she said. “Coming out, I felt like a badass.”
When she hit active duty, she flourished. An Army health-care specialist, she first did stints at bases in Oklahoma and Texas before shipping out to Camp Casey in South Korea in August 2014. Overseas, she worked as an ambulance aid driver and pharmacy technician, providing health care to hundreds of fellow soldiers. Sea’s work earned her a promotion and two Army Achievement Medals, according to her legal complaint.
“SPC Sea has the drive and professionalism needed to bring the U.S. Army to new heights,” a supervisor wrote in a character assessment. “She represents the best that the Army has to offer: a smart, agile young leader capable of handling immense challenges with marked success.”
But there was an unforeseen problem hidden in her immigration visa that would upset her bid for citizenship.
Under MAVNI, service members are required to apply for naturalization as soon as they receive an honorable service designation. Sea submitted her first application in February 2014. That’s when investigators discovered the issue. In 2008, Sea had obtained her F-1 student visa from an institution called the Neo-America Language School.
Unbeknown to Sea, the school’s owner at the time was working with a corrupt U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent to rubber-stamp visas for bribes. In 2013, federal immigration officials were indicted in connection with the scheme. Sea had no idea the visas were fraudulent — the school was listed as an approved program by ICE, the legal complaint stated — and she believed that her paperwork was legitimate. In reality, a date was off in the application about when she entered the country.
“The fraud was actually perpetrated by the corrupt CBP officer,” Ahmed said. “She had no idea there was this . . . document that was put in her student visa application. No one told her.” The officer pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in prison.
But officials flagged the visa tied to the fraudulent school when she applied for naturalization in 2014. In an interview with officials, Sea “stated that she had never given false information to any U.S. government official while applying for any immigration benefits,” her lawsuit argues. She maintained that the document was accurate, “even though it was not,” her complaint says.
Recognizing the inaccuracy, the government rejected her first naturalization bid because she had not established herself as a person of “good moral character.” Under MAVNI, she had to wait another year, until July 2016, to reapply. In January 2017, she also applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But she has received no answer on either request.
She hoped to pursue a career in the service, but the wait left her in limbo. Sea continued to perform her duties but also worked toward advancing her military credentials. She looked into both a physician assistant program and medical school, but neither was realistic with her citizenship unsettled. Sea also pursued two degrees — one in pre-med and the other in Spanish — while waiting for her naturalization to go through. She also applied to enter noncommissioned officer classes, but she was dropped each time because of her status.
Sea said she was dropped from the last officer class the day before she was called in to her commander’s office and told she was being discharged.
The Army is using her alien status as justification for her exit from the ranks. Service members in the same situation have been discharged throughout the past year. The Associated Press reported that at least 40 MAVNI participants have recently been discharged or have had their status put on hold.
“They knew about the student visa at least since 2014, and she’s been honorably serving the military since then,” Ahmed said. “Throughout the entire time, they never sought to discharge her. They’re claiming now the reason for discharging her is based on her being an alien, which makes no sense. Everyone in the MAVNI program is an alien.”
Regardless of the MAVNI program, under DACA, Sea still would be eligible for continued service, her attorney argued.
“There’s no reason to discharge her now. She’s eligible now. She could keep serving.”
As she hurries her life into boxes in Texas, Sea is facing the reality of her predicament. A military career, serving the Army as a doctor, earning her citizenship — all that’s out the window, she said. “It’s never going to happen. I was still hoping last week that someone would listen. No one seems to be listening.”