'I'm not leaving. They're taking me,' Afghan War veteran says as ICE prepares to deport him
By MANYA BRACHEAR PASHMAN | Chicago Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 23, 2018
A green card veteran who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, then later served time in prison on a felony drug conviction, began a journey back to his birthplace Friday. Immigration officials removed him from a Kankakee detention center and transferred him to Chicago O’Hare International Airport, his lawyer said.
Miguel Perez Jr., 39, told the Tribune Thursday night in a call from the detention center that all of his electronic devices had been shut off. His family, he said, had not been notified about his imminent deportation.
“I’m not leaving. They’re taking me,” he said. “They’re not going to teach me to never give up, and then I give up,” he added, referring to his military training.
The move to send Perez back to his native Mexico, where he has not lived since he was 8, could mark the end of what has been a 16-month effort by Perez and his advocates to let him stay in the United States. Supporters are holding out hope for an eleventh-hour reprieve, though it is seen as highly unlikely.
Among those supporters is U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, who made a long-shot bid to keep him in the country by using a little-known legal maneuver known as a private bill, which is intended to help specific individuals. The bill is still sitting in committee.
Last week, Perez’s petition for citizenship retroactive to when he joined the military in 2001 was denied by immigration officials.
Perez was to be flown out of Illinois Friday, without saying goodbye to his family and without much more than a toothbrush.
At a late morning news conference at the Lincoln United Methodist Church in Pilsen, Perez’s attorney Chris Bergin said he’d been told by officials at the Kankakee detention center that Perez was on a list to be deported and had already been moved from the facility.
“About now, I’d say he’s approaching O’Hare Airport,” Bergin said, standing with another half-dozen of Perez’s supporters, including his parents.
The group angrily decried the decision to deport Perez so quickly after his request for citizenship had been rejected, but pledged to fight until he is returned to his family.
In Spanish, Perez’s parents, Miguel Sr. and Esperanza Montes Perez, said they were heartbroken, but that they would keep fighting for their son’s return.
“My son fought in a war (in) which he defended people who are now throwing him out like garbage,” Montes Perez said.
At the news conference, activists released a copy of a letter from Duckworth to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, asking her to personally review Perez’s case.
“Beyond the injustice that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has laid on Perez ... in his deportation, I would find it shocking to learn that he will potentially be leaving with nothing but the clothes on his back,” Duckworth wrote. “This is a deplorable way to treat a veteran who risked his life in combat for our nation.”
Perez said Thursday night that, in addition to what he was wearing, he had a toothbrush, toothpaste and a pair of thermal underwear.
Perez is one of many legal permanent residents who have served in the U.S. military, then have had to confront the possibility of deportation to their native countries after committing a crime. His deportation caps a series of attempts to keep him in the U.S.
In addition to the retroactive application for citizenship, he petitioned Gov. Bruce Rauner for clemency and appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for relief under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, a protection that resembles asylum.
Perez and human rights advocates believe his life will be in danger if he is sent back to Mexico. Drug cartels often try to recruit deported veterans for their combat experience.
Both requests for relief were denied.
Raised in Chicago since age 8, he enlisted before 9/11 and served until 2004. He was deployed to Afghanistan and served with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, where he participated in numerous classified missions, Duckworth said.
After his military service, Perez sought treatment at the Veterans Affairs hospital near 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 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.
While Perez was convicted of delivering less than 100 grams of cocaine, prosecutors have said he was arrested for delivering much more and received a reduced sentence after a plea deal.
Prosecutors also pointed out that Perez was given a general discharge from the military after a drug infraction.
Perez said he discovered the citizenship oversight when he was summoned to immigration court shortly before his September 2016 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 and transferred to a Wisconsin detention center for immigrants awaiting deportation.
He was since moved to the Kankakee center.
“Not for 30 seconds was I illegal in this country,” he said. “I went to war for this country out of love for this country.”
“I was given birth in Mexico and life in the U.S,” he said.
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