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elizabeth kim
Elizabeth Kim, 20, came to America from Korea in March 2000 with her mom and sister and now works at her family’s Albany restaurant, Toki Teriyaki. She has been wrestling with immigration issues for the right to stay in the U.S. (David Patton/Democrat-Herald)

 

At her family's downtown Albany restaurant, Toki Teriyaki, there's basically nothing 20-year-old Elizabeth Kim can't do.

"I don't get paid," she says with a smile. "I just help my parents with anything: cooking, serving, even managing our employees since my parents are not great with English."

But well-versed though Elizabeth is in teriyaki, more important right now is her expertise with a particular type of alphabet soup: the E-2, F-1, F-2 and H-1C visas served up by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

That's the acumen she'll need to remain in the United States, where she's been for nearly a decade, following her 21st birthday.

‘A broader world'

Born in Korea, Elizabeth came to the U.S. with her mother, Dong Hee Shin, and younger sister, Jessica, as an 11-year-old in March 2000.

Dong Hee arrived on a student visa known as the F-1 and enrolled at Tacoma Community College as an ESL student - English as a second language.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Jessica, who's now 17, each bore an F-2, a visa for dependents of F-1 holders.

"My mom wanted my sister and me to experience a broader world and education," Elizabeth says. "Both of my parents thought studying in the U.S. was a better environment and opportunity.

"Basically," she says, "in Korea if you wish to attend a decent college, the average sleeping hours are three or four per day; there are after-school study programs and individual study till 2 or 3 a.m. Since my parents both thought that life wasn't the best for us, they decided to start a life in the U.S."

Elizabeth's father, Joo Hyung Kim, a financial executive, stayed in Korea for four years before joining his family. He made weeklong visits once or twice a year while providing for his wife and children from afar.

"We missed him too much," Elizabeth says. "We decided to either settle in Korea permanently or stay in the U.S. Since my sister and I preferred studying here and settling here, Dad came over. He resigned his position in his company to start his own business here."

During the years Joo Hyung remained in Korea, Dong Hee and her daughters lived in various Northwest cities, including Spokane and Beaverton, before landing in Albany in 2004. That's when Joo Hyung arrived on an E-2 visa and opened Toki Teriyaki on Second Avenue.

The E-2 is for nonresident, taxpaying alien investors with at least a 50 percent interest in an American business.

With Joo Hyung holding an E-2, his spouse is considered an E-2 dependent and can effectively stay in the U.S. indefinitely; the E-2 must be renewed every two years, but as long as the criteria are met, that's just a formality.

Elizabeth and Jessica, since both are under 21 and unmarried, qualify as E-2 dependents as well.

But after Elizabeth turns 21 on Feb. 13, only some strong and skillful swimming through the murky waters of the USCIS will enable to her to stay in the country she considers home.

"I've spent most of my childhood and life here," she says. "I was raised here as an American, and now the U.S is ignoring the child of legal immigrants."

Difficult options

Under U.S. immigration law, there are basically two ways for an E-2 dependent such as Elizabeth to remain in the country legally upon reaching age 21: get married to an American citizen or switch to the F-1 visa status and become a foreign student paying the much higher international tuition.

Elizabeth, who's been attending Linn-Benton Community College as an in-district student, is not on the verge of matrimony; nor is her family in a position to pay roughly three times as much for school as it has been (on an F-1 visa, as is the case now, she can't draw a paycheck from any business or even take out loans).

An immigration loophole, though, exists if she were to pursue a career in nursing - a profession in which there are personnel shortages.

In fact, Elizabeth had long been interested in health care. And since she could study nursing at LBCC - meaning she could continue to live at home and help out at the family business - that's what she decided to do.

"What I was counting on was the H-1C visa for nurses," she says. "This is a form of work visa that allows nurses and physical therapists with foreign nationalities to speed up their green card process and also allows them to work before the green card is issued.

"Because the nation has a shortage of nurses, Immigration Services would accept an English proficiency test and a U.S. nursing license to give a green card. After having a green card for five years, then I could apply for citizenship."

Elizabeth, a 2007 graduate of Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis and an excellent student during her two-plus years at LBCC, applied for nursing school last spring.

It's a highly competitive process. Each year about 250 people apply for the RN program, which has a minimum of 36 openings and last year had 54 thanks to funding provided by Samaritan Health Services.

Elizabeth looked like a solid bet to get in, especially since, as a community college, LBCC gives preference to in-district applicants.

But despite a strong overall score of 48 (out of a possible but unlikely maximum of 62) on the selection criteria - almost two points higher than the lowest selectee for the incoming class of RN students - she was turned down.

And that sent her apprehension and confusion into overdrive with her 21st birthday less than a year away.

Critical mistakes

As it turned out, it was a couple of key clerical errors that prevented Elizabeth from starting nursing school this fall.

The first was that, as her application was being reviewed, Elizabeth was mistakenly classified as an international student, robbing her of the in-district status she'd been rightfully enjoying - and the admittance preference she was entitled to.

The second was, she

didn't receive from LBCC the document that would've called that error to her attention in time for her to challenge her rejection.

When she finally did see a copy of that paperwork - only by chance, while she was at the administrative offices on other business - her attempts to get the college to help resolve her situation went nowhere for four months until Dean of Students Bruce Clemetsen met with her on Nov. 5 at the behest of the Democrat-

Herald.

Waiving her privacy rights, Elizabeth allowed a reporter to sit in on the meeting, during which Clemetsen, after going over Elizabeth's file, acknowledged the error in her classification.

"If she'd have challenged this," he said, "she'd have been in."

With fall term half over, that news was not of immense consolation, but at least it indicated that her odds of being accepted for next year's class were extremely high if not downright airtight.

And in the meantime, Elizabeth could attend Oregon State and add classes that would apply toward a four-year bachelor's degree in nursing if she chose to pursue that in addition to obtaining the two-year RN degree LBCC offers.

"I'm not positive, but I am planning to try one more time with LBCC nursing," says Elizabeth, who is enrolled at OSU for winter term. She'll be there as an international student on an F-1 visa, but OSU will charge her in-state tuition - as will Linn-Benton if she returns there for nursing school.

"Ever since this incident," she says, referring to the application trouble at LBCC, "I've thought it over carefully and I came to question why I wanted to become a nurse so desperately. I loved the fact that I could care for the patients who need help, but I guess I was desperate because of the immigration issue, and that made me disappointed even greater and even feel angry.

"I still haven't changed about continuing in the medical field since I love studying human anatomy, and my passion for helping the sick and suffering people never died," Elizabeth says. "I haven't decided yet, but if I find an opportunity I'd like to browse through broader fields of choice instead of just nursing like before."

DREAM Act

Whether she chooses nursing, medicine, dentistry or another health care discipline - any of which would enhance her ability to stay in the U.S., though nursing would do so the most - Elizabeth still has to navigate the USCIS labyrinth.

The journey involves applying for that F-1 visa (which she did) to carry throughout her schooling, then try to find a path to a green card - permanent residency - and, ultimately, citizenship.

But another possibility for Elizabeth and the roughly 65,000 others in her situation - the children of both documented aliens, such as her parents, and illegal aliens - is proposed legislation known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or the DREAM Act for short.

For the fourth time in the past decade, the act was introduced in Congress - this time, in both the House and Senate - on March 26.

The act, still in committee in both chambers, would establish a much clearer path to permanent residency for people such as Elizabeth who meet a set of criteria likely to include things such as:

• Must be between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time the law is enacted.

• Must have arrived in the United States before the age of 16.

• Must have resided continuously in the United States for a least five years.

• Must have graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED.

"The DREAM Act is intriguing, but I have to keep looking at all of my options," Elizabeth says, knowing one can never count on Congress to come through, especially on an issue as touchy as immigration reform.

"I'm kind of thankful for the opportunity to mature and grow," she says, still smiling. "It's like taking another step towards adulthood, perhaps a little earlier than most of my friends. This gave me another chance to rethink my future and find what, really, I want to become."

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