Duckworth, others hope political muscle saves veteran from deportation
By MANYA BRACHEAR PASHMAN | Chicago Tribune | Published: February 9, 2018
CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — As the threat of deportation becomes more imminent for a U.S. Army veteran with a green card and felony drug conviction, lawmakers and clergy this week ramped up efforts to keep him in the U.S.
On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, using a little-known legislative maneuver intended to help specific individuals, introduced a private bill, requesting relief for Miguel Perez Jr., 39, who served two tours in Afghanistan but has no access to veteran benefits and has been ordered to return to his native Mexico.
“To prevent this disgraceful treatment of a veteran who risked his life on behalf of our nation, I filed a private immigration relief bill on his behalf,” Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, said in a statement. “Mr. Perez deserves the opportunity to stay in the country he was raised in and subsequently signed up to defend. He has close family ties to the United States and removal would have a serious adverse impact on the health of this combat veteran and that of his family.”
Private bills have been introduced by dozens of members of Congress this past year seeking to aid constituents with immigration issues. Their success rate is generally low, but Duckworth hopes the gesture alone will bolster Perez’s case.
Perez is awaiting deportation in a Wisconsin detention center. He began a hunger strike last week, saying that his abstinence from solid food is not only a protest of his situation, but also a prayerful fast to bring back other veterans who already have been deported.
“God has given me a new sense of living,” Perez said. “I’ve got a purpose, and my purpose is those guys right now.”
He said a chaplain intervened on his behalf Wednesday when guards threatened to place Perez in solitary confinement, barring phone calls and visitors.
Nicole Aberico, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, did not confirm whether immigration officials had made such a threat to Perez. She said in a statement that once a detainee skips nine consecutive meals, officials explain the negative health effects of not eating. For detainees’ safety, ICE closely monitors their food and water intake, she said.
“In general, ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference,” Aberico said. “ICE does not retaliate in any way against ICE detainees who implement religious fasts or hunger strikes.”
Earlier this week, Perez’s parents received word that Gov. Bruce Rauner had denied a pardon for their son, which advocates had hoped would encourage the government to grant citizenship to Perez, dating back to when he joined the military in 2001. His attorney, Chris Bergin, applied for citizenship on Perez’s behalf in July.
That retroactive application for citizenship is the only pathway left for Perez after federal appeals judges denied a request for relief under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, a protection similar to asylum. Perez and human rights advocates believe he would be in danger if he were sent back to Mexico, where he hasn’t lived since he was 8.
Perez is one of many legal permanent residents who have served in the U.S. military, then faced the possibility of deportation to their native countries after committing a crime. As with others, Perez mistakenly thought he became a U.S. citizen when he took an oath to protect the nation. He said superiors never offered to help him expedite his citizenship.
After his military service, Perez sought treatment at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Maywood, where doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was supposed to return for more tests to determine whether he also had a traumatic brain injury. In the meantime, he reconnected with a childhood friend who provided free drugs and alcohol.
On the night of Nov. 26, 2008, while with that friend, Perez handed a laptop case containing cocaine to an undercover officer. Perez pleaded guilty to the drug charge and served half of a 15-year prison sentence. When legal residents or people who are here illegally commit crimes, ICE’s standard procedure is to let them serve most of their sentence for the crime in the U.S., then deport them.
Perez discovered the citizenship oversight when he was summoned to immigration court shortly before his release from Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg. Instead of heading home to Chicago from prison, Perez was placed in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But as Perez’s options for staying in the U.S. narrow, his plight continues to gain attention from those sympathetic to his cause.
In addition to the bill introduced Thursday, Duckworth introduced several bills in August intended to prevent veterans and members of the military from being deported or denied health care. The proposed bills would bar the deportation of veterans, give legal permanent residents a path to citizenship through military service, establish naturalization offices at military training facilities, and bolster health care services for veterans.
In the House, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democratic congressman from Texas, said he would seek to amend a proposed Repatriate Our Patriots Act to cover Perez and others like him. Proposed by Gonzalez last year, the bill is the first bipartisan effort to address the issue. It is co-sponsored by Alaska Republican Don Young, the longest continuously serving member of the House, and Rep. Bobby Rush, a Chicago Democrat.
“The American government breached a contract with green card vets,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t consider this an immigration bill. I consider this a veterans bill. This is for American soldiers.”