Reverse migration: Koreans in New Jersey seek shelter from COVID-19 — in South Korea

June 19, 2020 Center for Cooperative Media

By Eun Sook Lim, The Korea Daily

Editor’s note: This is the English translation of the original story, which was first published in Korean by The Korea Daily. This version has been updated and edited, with permission from the author(s) and publication(s), for length and clarity.

NEW JERSEY — As the coronavirus surged in the United States, Mr. Kim knew what he needed to do to protect himself from the outbreak: move back to South Korea.

Kim, 58, a legal U.S. permanent resident, said that the United States has struggled to contain the spread of the virus, as compared to what his native country has done since the beginning of the pandemic. 

In April, he packed his bag and boarded a flight back to Seoul, the South Korean capital, where he was born. 

“While COVID-19 pandemic is getting extremely serious, the U.S. government has been too slow and too confused in handling the situation,” Kim said. “I became concerned about my own medical condition. Because the NJ and NY hospitals were full, many of my friends were asked to stay home without any treatment. In South Korea, I would not have a problem seeking treatment, in case I contracted the virus.”

Mr. Lee, 64, lives alone. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he decided to go back to South Korea because his family members there can take care of him.

“As a retiree, my primary concern is my health. All my children are grown and living in different parts of the United States. But they have their own lives now. Since I have become eligible for a retirement pension, I thought I’d be better off to go back to South Korea,” Lee said. “I feel uneasy every time I hear the news about tens of thousands of Americans who have died of COVID-19.”

In New Jersey and New York, more and more Korean Americans, like Kim and Lee, are returning to South Korea since the coronavirus outbreak. The idea of returning to their homeland, temporarily or permanently, has become a household conversation among Korean families.

Mr. Choi, 60, described how Koreans, who have left New Jersey or New York for South Korea, now live in their re-adopted land.

“Recently, in New York, I had a friend who immigrated back to South Korea because of the coronavirus. We have been friends for 30 years, and now he is in Songdo,” Choi said. “He told me that there are a lot of Korean Americans who have left the United States during this pandemic, and now they are forming a village of their own in Songdo, [about 30 kilometers southwest of Seoul].”

While it seems to be a good excuse for many Koreans to go back to their country of origin in the time of COVID-19, the main reason is to seek refuge in a place surrounded by their family members and with hospitals that are not exceeding beyond their capacity. Most of the Koreans who repatriated themselves to South Korea are middle aged and senior citizens.

“I am very concerned for my health as well as the safety of my children due to hate crimes and violence against Asians during this pandemic,” said a 50-year-old Korean man who requested not to disclose his name. “I immigrated to the United States to give my children a better education. However, the current situation has caused a negative influence on my children. I am thinking of returning to South Korea for good.”

Korean immigration attorneys in New Jersey and New York have been seeing the reverse-migration pattern among their clients asking for legal advice.

“Since March, about 30 percent of the calls that I have received are from Korean clients who seek information on how to return to South Korea and how it will affect their U.S. immigration status,” said Joong Jay Shin, an immigration attorney. “Korean Americans want to return to South Korea for a fast and accurate COVID-19 test and better healthcare. And the medical treatment is also more affordable there.”

Reverse migration, according to legal experts, may have some ramifications depending on their immigration status in the United States. 

“U.S. permanent residents who are planning to stay for more than three months in South Korea, for example, must prepare papers that they still intend to return to the United States,” Shin added. “Even if they are staying in South Korea for a longer period, they must be able to show that they maintain residence in the United States. Therefore, they need to show rent payment stubs, utility bills and bank accounts, and they must prepare and file their tax returns in the United States.”

This translation was provided by Jongwon Lee in partnership with the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, and is supported by funding from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The story was originally published in Korean by The Korea Daily and is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit The Korea Daily.

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