Immigrants From Peninsula Swamp Program Offering Citizenship; Other Groups Squeezed
By MIRIAM JORDAN
LOS ANGELES -- Suk Joon Lee, a South Korean immigrant, feared his days in the U.S. were numbered. His ice-cream shop wasn't doing well, and if it failed, his investor visa could be revoked.
Then Mr. Lee stumbled upon a Korean-language Web site that described a way out: a program that the Army was about to launch that offered a shortcut to getting U.S. citizenship. The site was created by another Korean immigrant, James Hwang, and it explained in minute detail the steps required to qualify.
"James knew everything about the program, and he wasn't even in the military," says the 27-year-old Mr. Lee. In February, Mr. Lee, along with hundreds of other Korean immigrants who had learned about the pilot program from Mr. Hwang, descended on Army recruiting centers in New York to enlist.
The program was authorized without fanfare late last year by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to attract temporary immigrants who speak strategically important languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Korean. The bait: The soldiers could immediately apply for U.S. citizenship, skipping the sometimes decadelong process of securing a green card first.
So many Koreans have applied, however, that the Army doesn't need them all.
Koreans form the largest group among the 8,000 applicants for the program, launched on Feb. 23. Many have excellent credentials, including degrees in medicine and engineering. Almost all are veterans of South Korea's own compulsory military service.
"The quality of these applicants has been phenomenal," says Lt. Col. Peter Badoian, the project officer for the pilot program. "But we didn't anticipate one immigrant community would respond so strongly."
The promise of America lures thousands of South Koreans to the U.S. each year. Korean students enroll in U.S. colleges. Others start small businesses in order to get temporary visas.
But many get tied up in bureaucracy.
That's the predicament Mr. Hwang and his wife, Irene, found themselves in. The couple arrived in the U.S. in 2001 on student visas. Both of them are trained physicians. They held other temporary permits, including H1-B skilled-worker visas. After Mrs. Hwang gave birth to a son in California, the couple in 2006 applied for green cards. Immigration authorities approved Mrs. Hwang in eight months. Mr. Hwang's case languished, held up, he says, by a Federal Bureau of Investigation background check that hadn't been completed.
Immigrants who are permanent residents, such as Mrs. Hwang, have long been eligible to join the U.S. military. In May 2007, she enlisted so she could quickly secure U.S. citizenship and sponsor her dying father to remain with her in the U.S.
Yet her husband's frustration with the green-card process mounted. "Last year, I was one step away from suing the government" for the processing delay, he says.
Then he got wind of a program in the works that would enable temporary immigrants to enlist and become U.S. citizens in six months. Tapping into a Korean-American network in the Army, the Hwangs gathered details about the program months before it was official.
In November 2008, Secretary Gates approved a one-year pilot program that the Army would unveil in New York City within months. Mr. Hwang, who was eager to enlist, felt obligated to share his research with other Koreans in the same bind.
"If the program is going to offer people like me the opportunity to stay in the U.S., I thought I should give as many Koreans as possible the chance to learn about it," says Mr. Hwang.
He created a free site (cafe.daum.net/USmilitary). He specified the eligibility requirements for the program: Applicants must have lived in the U.S. for at least two years and have a valid temporary-resident visa. Enlistees with language skills must agree to a minimum four years of active duty, which could very well be in Iraq or Afghanistan, and four years in the Reserves.
Mr. Hwang started leading free study sessions live online to prepare applicants for the standardized military entrance exam. "He would give us a lot of homework," says Mr. Lee, the struggling ice-cream entrepreneur, about the prep classes held three nights a week.
Mr. Lee, who has spiky, gelled hair and is partial to pink polo shirts, served two years as a conscript in Korea. He says joining the U.S. Army doesn't daunt him.
Neither did the math he needed for the exam. Leafing through pages of algebra, geometry and trigonometry in Mr. Hwang's study guide, Mr. Lee says, "We learned this stuff in junior high in Korea."
But the English vocabulary was tough. Mr. Hwang advised his students to make flash cards. He then quizzed them on the meaning of words such as lament, hasten and mangle.
W.S. Yang, a 30-year-old vocational student who followed Mr. Hwang's tutorials from Salisbury, Md., says that sometimes the sessions stretched to 3 a.m. "I would fall asleep in my college classes the next day," he recalls. Another participant, who logged on from Seoul during work hours, got in some trouble when his boss caught him answering Mr. Hwang's questions.
As word spread about the Army pilot program, recruiting offices across the U.S. were inundated with calls and visits from Koreans. "They knew about the program before we did," says Sgt. Joshua Cannon, who runs an Army recruiting center in Los Angeles.
In February, Mr. Lee boarded a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York so he could be one of the first in line. He handed over his birth certificate, high-school diploma and college transcripts. He answered an "enlistment prescreening checklist" with questions like, "Do you have all your toes?" and "Have you ever had any body parts pierced?" He answered yes on the first, no on the second.
All told, he made three trips to New York and spent about $3,000 in his quest to enlist. He reports for basic training on Aug. 18 and then will train as a dental technician. Mr. Yang of Maryland is looking forward to working as an Apache helicopter repairman.
The Army recently expanded the pilot program to Los Angeles, home to the largest Korean community in the U.S. Koreans accounted for 20 out of the 22 applicants who had shown up at a recruiting station in a suburban mall by the second afternoon.
"It's crazy here," says Sgt. Cannon as he tried to help two Koreans and handle a barrage of phone inquiries.
The Army continues to process applications from Koreans, but it is unlikely to accept all those who qualify. "The Army also needs speakers of Pashtu, Urdu and Arabic," says Lt. Col. Badoian.
Mr. Hwang says he is committed to maintaining his site, which now includes tips from fresh enlistees. One recent post recommends a particular recruiter in Long Island City, N.Y.; another complains about the long wait for a physical exam.
This month, Mr. Hwang gathered about a dozen of his "recruits" for a celebratory weekend in Las Vegas. But after setting off the Korean enlistment frenzy, he himself won't be signing up.
It so happens, he received his green card in early February -- just before the Army launched the pilot program.