updated 2/4/2005 3:58:25 PM ET 2005-02-04T20:58:25

As many as 1,000 people who may have been wrongly denied U.S. citizenship for minor infractions could eventually be given the oath, thanks to a lawsuit brought by a South Korean man who was rejected because he once gathered too many oysters along a beach.

U.S. officials conceded that from 1998 to 2004, immigration authorities in Seattle misapplied the “good moral character” standard for naturalization and routinely denied citizenship to people because of minor infractions on their records.

Among them was Kichul Lee, who in 1999 was fined $152 for collecting 51 oysters, almost three dozen more than the state’s limit, along a Washington beach. In 2003, he was denied citizenship because of it.

“Taking too many oysters off the beach doesn’t show you lack good moral character,” said Lee’s attorney, Robert Gibbs.

Immigration officials admit Lee and some other immigrants were wrongly rejected for offenses as minor as traffic infractions, but U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik  last month agreed to let such claims for citizenship go forward as a class-action lawsuit, meaning hundreds of people could join the case. Lasnik ordered Wednesday that Lee and three others be sworn in, even as the case progressed.

Immigration officials in Seattle have reassigned a supervisor and retrained workers to carry out policies correctly. But Lasnik said the case should go forward to establish whether the government had taken adequate steps to solve the problem and make sure it did not happen again.

Kristin Johnson, a government attorney representing the Seattle immigration office, said that Lasnik’s ruling was fair and that a class-action would be a good way to determine how extensive the mistakes were.

In his ruling, Lasnik said several hundred applicants may have been denied citizenship based on incorrect character findings. Gibbs put the figure at 500 to 1,000 and said the problem appeared to be confined to the Seattle office.

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