A World of Difference

SU students share their frustrations as green card-holders with limited rights. This piece also appeared in the Spring 2010 issue.

By Sarah Lee


Gina Shim has lived in the United States since she was three years old.  Though born in Seoul, South Korea, the senior anthropology and policy studies double major considers herself as American as they come: she cheers raucously at SU home games, studies a subject that wouldn’t normally be considered a typically “Asian” field of choice and has no trace of a foreign accent.

Legally and professionally though, Gina will never be considered a real American — or at least not as American as someone who was actually born here.  Though she came of age a year before the hotly anticipated 2008 presidential election, she didn’t get to cast her vote.  And while she’s wanted to apply for the Peace Corps since her freshman year, she’ll have to put that dream on hold a little while longer.  What Gina lacks is what most others don’t think twice about having: a U.S. citizenship.  “I’ve always wanted to go into government jobs, but you have to be a citizen to apply,” she says.  “It kind of sucks.  Just because I don’t have that label, I can’t do things that other people who are born here can do.”

Gina obtained her green card, formally known as United States Permanent Residence Card, during her junior year of high school.  After five years of residency, green card-holders can apply to become naturalized U.S. citizens.  Gina intentionally timed her pending citizenship application to coincide with the year she would graduate from college, hoping that she would be open for federal jobs such as the Peace Corps, a government-run organization that sends volunteers abroad for international development purposes.

Unfortunately, if Gina wanted to apply for her citizenship online, she would have to travel back home to Philadelphia to get her fingerprints taken and pick up all the paperwork, a hassle she doesn’t want to be dealing with amidst the stress of her final college semester.  She opted to wait until her spring break or the summer, when she would be fully available for whatever date the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services scheduled for her to come in on.

“There’s no set time or dates of when you have to go to your appointment,” she says.  “Just in a span of a few weeks, they can call you to come and you have to be there.”

Jenny Ahn, a junior English education major and psychology minor, felt similar restrictions on her post-grad possibilities, but remained uncertain on whether she wanted to commit to becoming an American citizen.  Though she’s lived in the U.S. for 12 years, she was born in South Korea and still has most of family there, prompting her loyalty to remain split between the two countries that she simultaneously calls home.

“I was raised in Korea long enough to know the schooling system, made a lot of friends and I was old enough to recognize and remember all that,” she says.  “At the same time, most of my high school and college years, which are considered your peak adolescent moments, were spent here.  I’ve really spent half my life here, half there, and I hold both times very closely.”

Being comfortable in both cultures, Jenny doesn’t know where she wants to ultimately settle down but hasn’t made the leap into U.S. naturalization yet.

“Getting my citizenship is just not a priority right now, because I get enough benefits being a green card-holder as it is,” she says.  “The one disadvantage that I personally experience as a college student is when I apply for jobs or file taxes.  It’s more complicated with a lot of paperwork involved when you only have a green card, because you need proof that you have a working visa and you’re legally in the U.S.  It’s a very tedious process.”

Though she thinks programs like Teach For America would be a great opportunity for the kind of work she wants to pursue, she knows that some things will always be limited to citizens only.

“I don’t even try to apply, because there’s such a concrete restriction to that,” she says.  “I would definitely want to [do Teach For America] if it was open to green card-holders as well, but I know we can’t just apply to everything we want.”

Unlike Jenny, Haram Julie Kim, a 2007 SU graduate, was positive she wanted to stay in the U.S. after graduation but had to return to her home in South Korea after six months due to the time constraints of student visas.

“I was trying to find a job in America after I graduated and was also preparing to take the GRE’s,” she says.  “I got a visa extension through the school but the F-1 only allows an extra six-month period.  I would have had to either be hired or admitted into a school by that time and since I wasn’t, I had to come back to Korea.”

After staying here for 13 years — more than half of her life — Haram identifies with her American roots more so than her Korean ones and wants to move back here eventually.  One hurdle she’ll still have to cross on the long winding road to becoming a legitimate American, however, is the notorious and oft-disparaged U.S. citizenship test.

“I have to study the Constitution and its contents, which I’m sure some citizens don’t even know,” she says.  “We have to know the names of Supreme Court justices — useless.  We have to know some of the tax laws — again, useless.  The order of the presidents, their names, terms served…the Pledge of Allegiance, which we all forget after kindergarten.  And the anthem, but who sings it unless you’re at a baseball game?”

When it comes down to it, Gina, Jenny, Haram and any other potential citizenship-seeker want what any minority in this hallowed mix of a country is relentlessly looking for: equality.

I’ve been here so long and yet I don’t have the same benefits as a U.S. citizen,” Gina says.  “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t deserve the same treatment as everybody else.”

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