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Elijah VanderMolen

Francesca and Syngman Rhee: Fair Admittance and Treatment, or Bent Immigration Laws?

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One notable A-File contained within this collection is Francesca Rhee’s, an Austrian woman born in the year 1900. Francesca lived in the US for multiple years and became naturalized in 1940. She eventually married a Korean man named Syngman Rhee, and in 1948, she moved with him and lived in the newly-formed South Korea under the First Republic of Korea, its first government. There, she not only became a citizen of the new country, forfeiting her Austrian and American citizenship in the process, but she also became the country’s first lady through her marriage to Syngman. In 1960, after a series of student-led riots protesting Syngman’s government, Francesca and Syngman left their country and traveled to Honolulu, USA, and resided there for 5 years until Syngman’s death. Upon his death, she returned to South Korea to live with her adopted son.

US immigration and asylum policy is infamously rife with equity issues. Some ethnic and national groups deserving of entry according to US immigration and asylum policy have been denied entry due to foreign policy objectives. One notable example of this was the refusal to hold asylum hearings for Haitian refugees fleeing political turmoil following a military coup overthrowing the country’s first Democratically-elected president.Debatably violating US asylum policy and UN protocol, or, perhaps, merely rigorously exploiting their loopholes, the US government intercepted incoming Haitians at sea and repatriated them to avoid holding asylum hearings for them; the US’ desire was to reinstall the deposed president rather than accept the country’s refugees.1 On the other side of the same coin, other groups have been allowed entry to the US in far greater numbers when it served US foreign policy and the US’ image, as with the large number of immigrants accepted from communist countries – notably, Cuba – during the Cold War. Francesca and Syngman’s admittance, then, is an interesting and notable case to consider. Their admittance to the US raises a number of questions about the country’s immigration and asylum policies of the time. Was their admittance to the US justified by existing immigration law and policy, or were they allowed to enter due to their VIP status as foreign leaders? Did they receive special treatment from the US government, or were they dealt with like any other immigrant? After examining Francesca Rhee’s A-File and its enclosed documents closely, the answers to these questions, as well as their implications on US immigration and asylum policy history, become clear. Francesca and Syngman Rhee undoubtedly received special treatment from the US government by being flown to the US via CIA plane, having a direct line to US officials, and potentially receiving fast-track status on visa renewals. Despite this, their status legitimately qualified them for the visas they received. While the logistics of the Rhee’s entry and stay in the US were irregularly privileged, no immigration policy or law was bent or broken to accommodate them.

Before analyzing Francesca and Syngman’s entry to the US, the history of Korean immigration to the US must be understood to provide context. Prior to 1924, Korean immigration was not notably rare, nor was it considered unusual. However, the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924 changed this status quo by banning all Asian immigrants from entering the US. The notable exception to this exclusion were students, as Asian students were permitted to study at U.S. universities. Political refugees and intellectuals took advantage of this, attending U.S. universities in order to enter the country.2 Syngman Rhee was among these individuals. After serving his prison sentence for his membership in the Independence Club, a group of young Koreans that asserted Korean independence from Japan, he immigrated to the US as a student. He would earn a Ph.D. from Princeton University.

Two key changes ushered in a new phase of Korean immigration in the 1950s and early 1960s: the passing of the McCarran and Walter Act and the start of the Korean War. The McCarran and Walter Act of 1952 nullified the Asian immigration ban, making many more Koreans eligible to immigrate into the US. The Korean War also began during this period; with many hoping to flee the conflict, the Asian immigration ban lifted, and South Korea’s strong existing ties with the US, many Koreans immigrated to the US. Around 15,000 immigrated during the war itself, and Korean immigration to the US continued even after its close.3

During the period when the Rhee’s immigrated to the US, Korean immigration was relatively commonplace. Thus, their timing did not differ much from the average Korean immigrant’s. Instead, their differing immigration experience stemmed from their significant international status as former leaders of a state.

As foreign leaders, Francesca and Syngman Rhee received a number of irregular benefits that are not afforded to standard visa and asylum applicants. The first instance of the Rhees’ special treatment by the US government is evident from how they entered the country. On numerous documents contained in her A-File, Francesca notes she entered the country via “CAT airplane,” with “CAT” being an acronym for Civil Air Transport. This airline, only a few years after its creation, was secretly acquired by the CIA. A 4-volume booklet entitled CIA’s Clandestine Services: Histories of Civil Air Transport revealed the CIA’s acquisition of the airline and the covert operations it ran alongside its public, commercial side. Felix Smith, Permanent Honorary Chairman of the CAT Association, describes CAT’s status: “CAT was now the bona fide Air Arm of the CIA, a dynamic instrument of America’s foreign policy in Asia. Legally we became employees of the U.S. Government, albeit secret. Our cover was CAT’s passenger schedule which continued, while the CIA’s covert flights appeared to be CAT’s cargo charters.”4 Bearing in mind CAT’s role as an “arm of the CIA,” its transport of the Rhees’, two individuals of major international importance, was undoubtedly a CIA operation. Most immigrants are not afforded the privilege of being escorted into the US by a US government vehicle – it was, however, afforded to Francesca and Syngman Rhee.

More obvious instances of a special status the Rhee’s held while in the US are the close tabs the government kept on their activities and the direct line of communication the two could maintain with key US government officials. Contained in Francesca’s A-File are various untitled memos on the Rhee’s activities, local news coverage about them, and updates on Syngman’s deteriorating health. These memos were all personally written by John F. O’Shea, the District Director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It is unclear how large the district he had jurisdiction over was, as information about it online is scarce; regardless, this indicates the US took a special interest in the two. Furthermore, the Rhee’s even had a direct line to O’Shea, indicated by another memo contained in Francesca’s A-File reporting a conversation the two had in which Francesca “informed (O’Shea) in confidence of a plan by some un-named political leaders of the present Junta ruling Korea to have Syngman Rhee returned to Korea.” Francesca shows a level of trust of O’Shea or the US government in general; it is unlikely many other people admitted to the US had this sort of personal relationship with a member of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

A final hint that the Rhee’s received special privileges is contained in Francesca’s I-539 documents. An I-539 government form is a form visa holders fill out to request extensions to their visas. Throughout the duration of her stay in the US, she extended her visa 10 times. Evidence of special treatment afforded to her may be observed in how quickly each of these applications were approved. At least half of her I-539s were approved on the same day Rhee filled them out, and the longest she had to wait for an approval was five days. Considering the notorious inefficiency of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, it is more than likely that Francesca – and doubtless her husband, as well – were tended to with urgency and were given priority over other applicants.

A New York Times article written by David E. Rosenbaum and published in 1979 cites an unnamed State Department spokesman as saying the following: The general principle is that the United States does not distinguish between the most humble of the crown’s citizens and the crown itself. If they’re eligible for asylum, we grant it. If not, we don’t.” The three ways the US government provided special treatment to Francesca and Syngman Rhee clearly contradict this statement. As leaders of a foreign nation, the two were afforded some type of unofficial VIP status, proving the inequities of the US’ immigration system. Despite this recognition, one key point that puts the already-shaky integrity of the US immigration system into question: did Francesa and Syngman Rhee qualify for entry into the US legitimately, or did US officials disobey immigration policies in order to accommodate the two VIPs?

As alluded to earlier and indicated in many documents contained within her A-File, Francesca, and presumably Syngman, as well, gained entry rights via a B-2 Visa. This visa is given “for tourists on vacation and people coming for medical treatment, a social event, or participation in amateur contests for no pay.”5 On her first I-539 form, an application to extend time of temporary stay, Francesca listed her reasons for coming to the US as follows: “to visit – also medical treatment,” satisfying the first two conditions of the B-2 Visa requirements. It is worth emphasizing that these reasons given are wholly legitimate and are not fabricated by the US government in an illegal scheme to allow them entry. Syngman’s deteriorating health condition is well-documented throughout Francseca’s A-File in reports written by O’Shea: “Dr.Rhee’s physical condition extremely poor,” to the point where Francesca said he “is incapable of making any decisions on his own.” Considering Syngman died after five years in the US, it is reasonable to conclude his poor health condition was not a ruse.

After a comprehensive review of evidence from Francesca’s A-File and of US immigration law, it is clear that the Rhee’s presence in the US was legal and above-board. While the two were afforded various privileges due to their international importance and the vested interest the US government had in them, clearly being distinguished from “the most humble of the crown’s citizens,” their status as B-2 visa holders was justified by existing policy and law, and no rules were broken to provide them with said visas. While the US immigration system is often subject to inconsistent policy driven by separate foreign policy objectives, no policy was bent or broken to admit Francesca and Syngman Rhee.


  1. Linda Greenhouse, “The Supreme Court; High Court Backs Policy of Halting Haitian Refugees.” New York Times, June 22, 1993. ↩︎

  2. Soojin Chung, “History of Korean Immigration to America, from 1903 to Present.” Boston University School of Theology: Boston Korean Diaspora Project ↩︎

  3. Chung, “History of Korean Immigration…” ↩︎

  4. Felix Smith, “HISTORY.” CAT Association ↩︎

  5. USA Gov. “Apply for Nonimmigrant Visas to the U.S.” ↩︎