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.
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.
This is quite an interesting predicament.