A former Army specialist from Gardena, who was honorably discharged earlier this month, became a United States citizen Friday after what she described as years of worrying about deportation.
Yea Ji Sea, 29, was among the 6,900 people sworn in at a naturalization ceremony held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Sea joined the Army in 2013 under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest Program, according to a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California.
The program allows for recruitment of non-citizens who possess skills that are critical to the needs of the military in areas including physicians, nurses and experts in certain foreign languages.
Sea, who is fluent in Korean and a healthcare specialist, received two achievement medals for exceptional meritorious service while she was in the Army, but said she was likely discharged because of her immigration status.
"They discharged me pretty quickly, within one month," Sea explained. "I was pretty numb for awhile."
Sea came to the United States with her parents in 1998 from South Korea and grew up in the Los Angeles area. Sea was denied the first time she applied for U.S. citizenship because she stated an incorrect date on a false form drawn up for her by an immigration agent, the ACLU said. She was allowed to reapply in 2016, but there was no movement on her application for almost two years until the ACLU sued the federal government.
Before receiving word last week that her application was finally approved, Sea said she was constantly looking over her shoulder and always fearing deportation.
"I grew up in L.A. Where would I go? Where would I live? I was trying to imagine myself living in another country and it terrified me," Sea explained. "You're kind of always looking in your rear-view mirror."
After being sworn in Friday, one of the first things See did was register to vote. She said she is also considering reenlisting in the military.
"When I was going through this the last four years in the military, the last 20 years in America. Everyday is an unknown and I don't think it's a way to live," she said. "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."