Miguel Perez Jr. served in the U.S. Army and had a chance at citizenship. (Family photo)
Without a court ruling in hand, a Chicago lawyer has filed an appeal to halt the deportation of a decorated Army veteran with a green card to his native Mexico.
An order for removal was issued last week for Miguel Perez Jr., said his attorney, Chris Bergin, who learned of the order after calling a Department of Justice hotline that provides status updates to defendants and their lawyers.
Last month, Perez, who served time in a state prison for a felony drug conviction after two tours in Afghanistan, requested relief under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, a protection that resembles asylum.
After hearing testimony and arguments in a packed courtroom, immigration Judge Robin Rosche said she would consider the request and issue a ruling. On March 14, Perez called the hotline for an update and learned that an order for removal had been issued. After calling the hotline himself, Bergin filed an appeal to prevent Perez from being deported immediately. A week later, Bergin still had not received a copy of the ruling, he said.
"Technically, I have 30 days to appeal the judge’s ruling, but I have seen cases where ICE tries to remove before the 30 days," he added.
Unlike other court rulings and records, immigration court records require a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to be made public, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review said.
The request for relief under the U.N. torture provision is one of three efforts to keep Perez in the U.S. He is one of many legal permanent residents who have served in the U.S. military, then confronted the possibility of deportation to their native countries after committing a crime.
Next month, he is scheduled to plead with the state’s clemency board to ask Gov. Bruce Rauner to pardon his crime.
"He would have no record," said Julie Contreras, president of a local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, who has been advocating for Perez and other immigrants in jeopardy of deportation. "If he’s been pardoned, why would you want to remove him? We do see judges and the U.S. attorney looking in favor at the fact that the individual has been cleared by a governor."
Bergin also has petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to grant citizenship to Perez retroactively to when he joined the military in 2001 — a third option that would void the deportation order.
"We’d continue the journey to his pardon even if he’s allowed to stay in the United States," said Contreras, who hopes Perez’s case will call attention to the mental health needs of veterans coming back from war.
Bergin argued in court last month that his client’s life would be in danger if he were sent back to Mexico, where he hasn’t lived since he was 8. According to human rights activists and advocates for deported veterans, drug cartels target former U.S. residents, especially veterans with combat experience, to work on their behalf, and those who don’t comply are at risk.
Under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the U.S. agrees not to deport people who are not American citizens or nationals to another country where they could be tortured. Prosecutors rejected the argument that the danger allegedly facing Perez qualifies under the torture provision.
Perez said he struggled to hold down jobs after returning to Chicago after his military service. He sought treatment at the VA 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. But the hours of waiting and slow progress were dispiriting.
In the meantime, he reconnected with a childhood friend who provided free drugs and alcohol. On the night of Nov. 26, 2008, while with that friend, Perez handed a laptop case full of cocaine to an undercover officer. Perez pleaded guilty to delivering less than 100 grams of cocaine and served half of a 15-year sentence.
"We need to make sure Gov. Rauner sees the suffering," Contreras said. "He has remorse and he learned from the incident."
As is the case with many other green card veterans, Perez, a father of two U.S. citizen children, mistakenly thought he became a U.S. citizen when he took an oath to protect the nation. Military superiors never offered to help him expedite his citizenship, he told the court last month.
He discovered the oversight when he was summoned to immigration court shortly before his release from Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg last year. 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 procedure 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.