CHICAGO (AP) — An Army veteran deported to Mexico after serving time in prison for a drug conviction became a U.S. citizen on Friday.
Miguel Perez Jr. held up his citizenship certificate for the cameras after being sworn in, saying, "Here it is."
"It took a whole lot of work and a whole lot of praying," the 41-year-old Perez said while meeting with supporters and reporters at a Chicago church. "I'm here to thank every single one of you."
Perez, who was raised in Chicago, had a green card. But after serving 7½ years for a 2008 nonviolent drug conviction, he was deported last year. He was granted permission last month by immigration officials to re-enter the country for another chance to become a U.S. citizen. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker pardoned him in August.
Perez said when his lawyer called him Friday morning to tell him the news about his citizenship, he was in shock. Perez said he didn't believe it was real until he had the certificate in his hand. He said he expected to be returned to Mexico on Monday because he was in the U.S. on a 14-day permit.
Born in Mexico, Perez's family immigrated when he was a young child. His parents are naturalized U.S. citizens and his two children were born in the U.S.
He joined the Army in 2002 and served in Afghanistan, where he suffered a brain injury and was diagnosed with PTSD.
The veteran said he plans to focus on his health, including getting the mental health care he needs, and spending time with his family.
In a brief phone interview with The Associated Press on Friday evening, he said he also wants to advocate for other deported veterans.
"There are other cases like mine. People who served in the military and were deported to Mexico, Costa Rica and Nigeria," Perez said. "I want to use the platform I have to help them."
It his post-traumatic stress disorder, which caused crippling anxiety, that led to his drug charge, according to Perez's attorney, Chris Bergin. Perez couldn't immediately receive medical care through a federal Veterans Affairs hospital, so he turned to drugs, the lawyer said.
In 2008, he was accused of giving cocaine to an undercover police officer. He pleaded guilty and spent seven years in prison and was then turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which detained him for two years. Perez's deportation last year came after he failed to persuade a federal appeals court to block his removal.
Perez had been living in the Mexican border town of Tijuana following his deportation. He has said that he faced "dangerous" conditions while living there. He didn't elaborate.