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Chicago veteran fights deportation after serving time for drug charge

By MANYA BRACHEAR PASHMAN | Chicago Tribune | Published: February 3, 2017

CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — Pfc. Miguel Perez Jr. remembers seeing the sun rise in Afghanistan on July 4, 2003. As his U.S. special forces unit rounded a bend toward Kandahar, he saw an American flag flying high above base camp, a beacon that he had survived the mission.

"There was a lot of action at that time," said Perez, 38, a Mexican-born legal permanent resident of the U.S. and a decorated Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan. "I didn't think I was coming back. Just seeing the 50 stars and stripes did something to my skin. It was incredible, ecstasy, nirvana."

Now, after returning to the country he's called home for 30 years, Perez faces possible deportation to Mexico following a felony drug conviction.

Perez is one of many veterans, some of whom sustained injuries and emotional trauma during combat, who have been decorated for service, then confronted with the possibility of deportation after committing a crime. As with many others, Perez mistakenly thought he became a U.S. citizen when he took an oath to protect the nation. He discovered that was not the case when he was summoned to immigration court shortly before his release from a state penitentiary, where he had served seven years for handing over a bag of cocaine to an undercover police officer.

Instead of heading home to Chicago from prison, Perez was placed in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and transferred to a Wisconsin detention center for immigrants awaiting deportation.

On Monday, an immigration judge in Chicago will decide his fate at a deportation hearing, during which Perez's attorney will argue that his client, who has served time and his country, should stay.

Roughly 18,700 legal permanent residents are in the U.S. armed forces, and about 5,000 join every year, according to the Department of Defense. More than 109,000 service men and women had become citizens by the end of 2015, according to statistics from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

It's unclear how many veterans have been deported. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates hundreds, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they don't keep track of that data. An agency spokeswoman said officials do consider military service a "positive factor" during deportation proceedings.

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.

"ICE respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service, and is very deliberate in its review of cases involving U.S. military veterans," ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said in a statement. "Any action taken by ICE that may result in the removal of an alien with military service must be authorized by the senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel."

That's as far as a number of legislators say they are willing to go when it comes to special treatment for noncitizen military personnel.

"We owe all the men and women who have fought for our nation an enormous debt of gratitude and respect," said Rep. John Shimkus, a Republican congressman from southeastern Illinois and a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army. "Prior military service alone, however, cannot create a blanket exemption from the laws of our country. The current policy ... allows for the unique circumstances of each case to be considered."

Perez's attorney argues that his client's life would be in danger if he was sent back to Mexico, where he hasn't lived since he was 8. Drug cartels target former American residents, especially veterans with combat experience, to work on their behalf, and those that don't comply are at risk.

"Being removed to Mexico, where he would be at risk of being killed … being separated from his whole family and the only country he has ever known, seems to be a punishment that does not fit the crime," his attorney, Chris Bergin, wrote in a motion filed late last year.

American opportunities

In a series of phone interviews from the Kenosha County Detention Center, Perez recounted what led him to join the Army, how he ran into trouble with the law and why he never expected to return to his native country, which he hardly remembers.

Perez walked into an Army recruiters' office to enlist on his 23rd birthday, April 17, 2001. He told the recruiter he was grateful for the opportunities America had offered generations of his family and wanted to give back.

His paternal great-grandparents received political asylum in the U.S. after fleeing Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. His paternal grandfather was born in the U.S., and his father, a former soccer player, had brought his family to the U.S. with hopes of playing for the Chicago Sting, a professional soccer club that dissolved in 1988.

Less than a week after enlisting, Perez was en route to Fort Jackson, S.C., for boot camp. He was later stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.

According to the Department of Defense, he left for his first tour in Afghanistan in May 2002 and went back for another in April 2003.

There, Perez provided maintenance for special forces occupying Firebase Gecko, Afghanistan, a former Taliban command post. He helped deliver supplies to troops on the ground, patrolled nearby towns for Taliban activity and conducted raids of suspected Taliban sites. Perez said grenade and roadside bomb explosions during his tours led him to lose much of his hearing and suffer severe headaches ever since.

For Christmas after his second tour, he proudly presented the flag that had flown above his Kandahar base to his father. He gave his mother his Army commendation medal, received for meritorious service.

"I was very proud of him as well because he defended our country," Miguel Perez Sr. said. "He defended the system. He defended this land. He defended the flag."

Perez Jr. returned to Fort Bragg to await his next assignment. Though he didn't want to go back to Afghanistan, he sought the adrenaline rush that came from combat and turned to cocaine, he said. Shortly after failing a routine drug test, he said he opted for an early discharge to return to Chicago.

From war to prison

At home, he reunited with his daughter from an earlier marriage, met another woman and had a son. In 2005, he transported his parents, who also were legal residents at the time, to take the citizenship exam. When they suggested he join them, he told them he was already a citizen by virtue of his service.

But Perez was wrong. On July 3, 2002, President George W. Bush had signed an executive order clearing the way for noncitizens who had served in the armed forces on or after Sept. 11, 2001, to immediately file for expedited citizenship. In Kandahar at that time, Perez never learned he was obligated to apply and it wasn't automatic.

Perez said he struggled to hold down jobs. He sought treatment at the VA 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. But the hours of waiting and slow progress were dispiriting.

In the meantime, he reconnected with a childhood friend who provided free drugs and alcohol. On the night of November 26, 2008, while with that friend, Perez handed a laptop case full of cocaine to an undercover officer. Perez pleaded guilty to delivering less than 100 grams of cocaine and was sentenced to serve half of a 15-year sentence.

At Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Perez earned an associate degree from Lake Land College, a community college in Mattoon. He sought addiction therapy, saw a psychologist and a psychiatrist, and started taking antidepressants to regulate his anxiety and moods. He worked as a teacher's aide, coaching other inmates to get their GEDs.

He kept in touch with his children and planned a fresh start when he returned home.

Lobbying for green card vets

Because his job as a teacher's aide paid only $28.80 a month, Perez applied for higher paying positions behind bars to save money for life after prison. He was told he was ineligible because he was not a U.S. citizen. He presumed there had been a mistake and reached out to ICE to get it fixed. But by early 2016, months before his release, he realized he had made the mistake: He had failed to apply for expedited citizenship and now was in danger of being deported.

During most of his seven years in prison, Perez never saw his mother, Esperanza, who couldn't bear to see him in prison scrubs. When he learned he might not return to Chicago, he called her right away.

Before going to Galesburg, Esperanza Perez went to Lincoln United Methodist Church, a Pilsen neighborhood church where many families are fighting the deportations of their loved ones. Its sister church, Adalberto United Methodist in Humboldt Park, is one of only a few sanctuary churches in the city for people here illegally.

Emma Lozano, who serves as the pastor of Lincoln, has pledged to lobby for legislation to protect so-called green-card veterans such as Perez.

So far, the Chicago City Council, Cook County Board of Commissioners and Illinois House and Senate have passed resolutions calling for congressional relief for soldiers who are legal residents of the U.S. and who have committed nonviolent crimes.

Though legislative relief does not appear to be on the horizon, a number of state representatives wrote letters to the immigration judge on behalf of Perez. U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who supports Perez, plans to attend Monday's hearing.

When Perez faced that judge in December, a handful of veterans who advocate on behalf of green-card soldiers pleaded for leniency. Perez, they argued, came back from the war scarred, like many of them. He made a mistake and paid the price, and put his life on the line to defend the country heroically, they said.

In addition to the Army Commendation Medal, Perez received a National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and an Army Service Ribbon.

"The sweat, tears and sometimes blood we shed for this country makes us as American as anyone born here," Perez said.

More veterans — citizens and green-card holders — plan to go Tuesday to Washington with Lozano to lobby Congress. They hope Perez will be free to go with them.

mbrachear@chicagotribune.com

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