A U.S. Army veteran and green card holder with a felony drug conviction could be deported as soon as this week, his attorney said Monday, after a federal court denied his appeal to remain in the U.S.
Miguel Perez Jr., 39, a Chicago resident who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and recently finished a prison term on a drug conviction, had sought to remain in the U.S., arguing his life would be in danger if he were deported to Mexico, where he has not lived since age 8.
A three-judge panel for the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument last week.
Perez's attorney, Chris Bergin, said the case highlights hypocrisy in how the country treats some American military service members.
"If you're going to put your hand on your hearts every time at a game, you're going to say thank you for your service and wear American flag lapel pins and you're going to criticize football players for taking a knee during the national anthem, it seems that's all superficial and false patriotism if you're not caring about an actual military veteran," Bergin said.
In a statement, Perez's supporters said Monday the ruling has left his family "distraught."
"From the beginning, Miguel has fought his deportation, not only for himself, but in solidarity with other green card veterans who have been or who are now facing deportation after having served their country in combat," they said.
Perez, who has two children who are U.S. citizens, is one of many legal permanent residents who served in the U.S. military then confronted the possibility of deportation to their native countries after committing a crime.
Perez said he mistakenly thought he became a U.S. citizen when he took an oath to protect the nation. His military superiors never offered to help him expedite his citizenship, Bergin reiterated in court Wednesday.
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 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.
When legal residents or people who are here illegally commit crimes, ICE's standard protocol is to let them serve most of their sentence for the crime in the U.S., then deport them.
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.
After oral arguments to the appeals court panel this month, Perez's mother, Esperanza, fought back tears. In Spanish, she said she could not bear hearing her son's fate discussed in such callous terms.
"He defended this country, and the same system wants to throw him away like garbage," she said through a translator. "It's so sad for me to think if they send him back to Mexico he'd be just another statistic."
In court, Perez cited the United Nations Convention against Torture, a protection that resembles asylum. Under that international provision, the U.S. agrees not to deport people who are not American citizens or nationals to another country where they could face imminent danger.
Prosecutors rejected the argument that the danger allegedly facing Perez qualifies under the torture provision and asked the judges to affirm the immigration court's order for removal.
Bergin said he has filed a stay on two grounds. One is based on a medical evaluation finding that Perez needs immediate attention for PTSD and his brain injury. The other seeks retroactive citizenship for Perez to when he joined the military in 2001.
Perez and his supporters are also preparing, if necessary, to file an appeal to the full panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit and have asked Gov. Bruce Rauner to grant a pardon to Perez for his criminal conviction, supporters said. If Rauner grants the pardon, it's not clear how that might affect the deportation case.
Congress should also address the problem facing green card veterans, supporters said.
Bergin hopes somebody at ICE "has a sense of decency and says, 'Look, we've got to credit the service this guy did.' "
"Every step of the way we've tried to get somebody to be sympathetic and reasonable," Bergin said.
-- Chicago Tribune's Manya Brachear Pashman contributed.
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