A U.S. Army veteran and green card holder with a felony drug conviction began a hunger strike Wednesday to protest his likely deportation, after a federal court denied his appeal to remain in the U.S., where he has lived since age 8.
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 drug cartels target veterans with combat experience to work on their behalf, or else.
A three-judge panel for the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument last week.
Perez said he believes deportation means certain death and the only thing left to do is commence an "extreme fast" until he is granted relief.
"If it comes down to me being deported, I would rather leave this world in the country I gave my heart for," Perez said in an interview from the detention center where he has been in custody for the last year.
Perez, who has two children who are U.S. citizens, is one of many legal permanent residents who served in the U.S. military and then were confronted with 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. He says his military 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 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.
Perez's attorney Chris 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.
Carlos Luna, founder and president of a green card veteran chapter of the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC), said he's deeply troubled by Perez's decision to fast, given his physical and mental condition.
"It's pretty ridiculous that a veteran has to go on a hunger strike just to be able to stay," Luna said. "Just [Tuesday], our president was talking about uniting the country and the reverence for veterans.
"I don't think it should come to this," he added. "He's definitely not getting the care he's earned."
This article is written by Manya Brachear Pashman from Chicago Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.