Do military veterans deserve American citizenship?
That’s the question Army Private First Class Miguel Perez, Jr., 38, is asking a judge to consider before he is deported back to Mexico, where he was born.
Perez was born in Mexico and moved to Chicago as a young boy. Once 18, he enlisted in the U.S. army and was deployed on two tours overseas. Perez served the United States in Afghanistan, and brought home an Army Commendation Medal, a National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and an Army Service Ribbon.
Sadly, he also brought home the lasting effects of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after his jeep exploded in Kandahar province. He may soon be sent out of the country a third time, but for vastly different reasons.
Now, 30 years after he first set foot in the United States, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is seeking to send Perez back to Mexico for a drug charge from 2010, while the Private First Class and his lawyer, Christopher Bergin, mount a defense.
“The sweat, tears and sometimes blood we shed for this country makes us as American as anyone born here,” Perez told the Chicago Tribune.
Perez’ life hasn’t been what many would call blessed. He was under the impression that joining the Army would make him an American citizen. But the Expedited Naturalization Executive Order signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 only hastened citizenship for noncitizens in the military. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services maintains that more than 109,000 service men and women have become citizens under this executive order as of 2016. They are still required to file for citizenship, which Perez never did.
Perez told the Chicago Tribune he missed the adrenaline rush that came from combat situations, and started using cocaine heavily. After a failed drug test, he requested an early discharge from the military.
Struggling to find a job and dealing drugs to get by, Perez was arrested, and subsequently found guilty of selling cocaine in 2010. That’s when he first landed on the ICE radar.
“He told me that when he made that mistake he was drinking and doing drugs 24/7,” Sara Walker, a member of Perez’s family church, Lincoln United Methodist Church in Chicago, told ABC News.
According to an ICE spokesperson, in a message to ABC7, while the agency seeks to be respectful of those with a military background, the review process is still necessary.
“Miguel Angel Perez-Montes, 38, from Mexico, was convicted in February 2010 in Cook County, Illinois, for manufacture/delivery of more than two pounds of cocaine and sentenced to serve 15 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections,” the spokesperson wrote. “He was encountered by ICE while serving his prison sentence and placed into removal proceedings in 2012.”
Perez was transferred to ICE custody in September 2016 and will remain there until federal immigration court proceedings conclude.
“[The decision] is not fair to us because my son fought for this country,” Perez’ mother, Esperanza Medina, who became a U.S. citizen in 2005, told ABC News. “He has a nation and it’s the USA.”
Perez filed a request for relief against deportation orders under the United Nations Convention against Torture, pleading for a longer stay in the U.S., as drug cartels in Mexico could target him for his military experience.
“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,” Bergin wrote in 2015.
A judge denied the request last week, and Bergen has appealed the denial, giving Perez at least another 30 days before the review process begins. In the meantime, Bergin has been in contact with Democratic Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, who he hopes will bring even more attention to the case.
If Bergin’s plan works, Perez’s citizenship will be backdated to the day he first joined the U.S. Army. If not, Perez will be sent to Mexico.
According to Department of Defense figures, about 18,700 legal permanent residents serve in the U.S. armed forces, and almost 5,000 join every year.
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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.