LOS ANGELES (CN) – A federal judge ruled Tuesday that immigration officials must decide in a few weeks whether to grant citizenship to a South Korean-born Army veteran who sued the federal government over excessive delays in her citizenship application.
Yea Ji Sea, who was brought to the United States by her parents in 1998, enlisted in the Army in 2013 under a program that allowed non-citizens with critical skills such as health care to serve in the military and eventually become U.S. citizens.
Sea, who speaks Korean and is qualified as a healthcare specialist, applied for citizenship through the program called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest(MAVNI).
U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald ordered U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Tuesday to resolve Sea’s application by Sept. 5, saying that the court wouldn’t tolerate any delays. Fitzgerald said he will either grant an extension or issue an injunction ordering the government to resolve it.
United States attorney Timothy Biche agreed a determination of her citizenship application should be timely. If her case isn’t resolved by then, the government must explain why additional time is needed.
Sea, 29, is scheduled for a naturalization interview on Wednesday with immigration officials. Biche said the timeline for Sea’s application process depends on what she says in the interview.
After being honorably discharged from the Army in July, Sea lost her documentation status and became subject to arrest and deportation by immigration authorities.
Her application was previously denied after presenting officials with documents fraudulently created by a U.S Customs and Border Patrol agent.
Sea filed for citizenship again after showing “good moral character” as required by government officials.
Biche argued that Sea’s incorrect statements during her initial interview were “100 percent relevant to her character.”
If Sea’s naturalization application is denied, she will challenge the decision in federal court, her attorney Sameer Ahmed with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said Tuesday.
Ahmed said Sea only learned about her interview after receiving a notice from Sen. Kamala Harris’ office.
Ahmed told Fitzgerald that MAVNI soldiers have faced extensive delays or have been discharged after being promised expedited naturalization documents once they joined the military on temporary visas.
“The government is not making good on contracts that MAVNI soldiers signed,” Ahmed told reporters outside the courthouse. “This does seem to be part of a greater effort by the Trump administration to deny citizenship to MAVNI soldiers. They don’t believe immigrants should have the right to citizenship.”
Ahmed said he sought assurances from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that Sea would not be arrested outside the courtroom. He said it was a “very realistic threat” given that ICE has arrested people at their green card interviews.
The agency told him they couldn’t give him any assurances.
Outside the courthouse, Sea said she was nervous and wanted to study more for her interview.
Ahmed told reporters the interview was “definitely” granted because of the lawsuit, adding that he hopes officials will grant Sea citizenship immediately after.
Sea, who grew up in Koreatown in Los Angeles, said she “truly loved” her time in the service and didn’t think she would be at risk of arrest and deportation.
“As a soldier, I thought I’d be protected by some law,” Sea said.
Sea said she is wrapping up a bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University with an eye toward a master’s program in medicine in 2019.
“I want to win this [case] first,” Sea said. “And then move on.”