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‘I’m so blessed to be here:’ Deported Army veteran back in Chicago for citizenship hearing

Miguel Perez Jr. served two tours in Afghanistan before being deported in 2018 after catching a drug charge. Tomorrow, he’ll find out if he’s a citizen of the United States.

Miguel Perez Jr., an Army veteran raised in Noble Square who served in Afghanistan and was deported to Mexico in 2016, stopped by Lincoln United Methodist Church on Tuesday to talk about his upcoming citizenship hearing.
Miguel Perez Jr., an Army veteran raised in Noble Square who served in Afghanistan and was deported to Mexico in 2016, stopped by Lincoln United Methodist Church on Tuesday to talk about his upcoming citizenship hearing.
Carlos Ballesteros/Sun-Times

A U.S. Army combat veteran who grew up on the West Side came back to Chicago on Tuesday after being deported to Mexico last year.

Miguel Perez Jr., 39, lawfully emigrated to Chicago with his parents from Mexico in 1989. Perez later joined the Army and served two tours in Afghanistan in 2002-03. In 2008, Perez was convicted of delivering cocaine and sentenced to nearly eight years in prison.

Immigration authorities revoked Perez’s green card and deported him to the Mexican border city of Matamoros in 2018.

In August, Gov. J.B. Pritzker granted Perez clemency for his drug charge.

“Miguel Perez should not have been deported. The bigoted immigration policy of President Trump and failed leadership of former Governor [Bruce] Rauner have caused unfortunate circumstances for a U.S. veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan,” Pritzker stated at the time. “In evaluating this request for clemency, I recognize this pardon is not a perfect solution, but it is the most just action to take to allow a U.S. veteran the opportunity to be treated fairly by the country he served.”

Perez then received a two-week permit to enter the country so he can attend a citizenship appointment with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Wednesday. That will determine whether he can become a citizen.

He landed at O’Hare International Airport on Tuesday morning and headed over to Lincoln Methodist United Church in Pilsen for a news conference. “I’m so blessed to be here,” he said. “Just a couple of days ago, I was stranded in a place I don’t belong.”

From the right: Miguel Perez Jr., his mother, Esperanza Perez (wearing green), and his father, Miguel Perez Sr., at Lincoln United Methodist Church on Tuesday.
Carlos Ballesteros/Sun-Times

Perez said he suffered a brain injury while in Afghanistan and has post-traumatic stress disorder, which went untreated until he was behind bars.

“Our treatment system for veterans failed” Perez, said Dr. David Ansell, an internal medicine physician at Rush University Medical Center who’s treated Perez since 2016. “People need treatment, not deportation. Had [Perez] received the treatment he needed when he got back home, none of this would’ve happened.”

Perez’s parents expressed gratitude Tuesday for their son’s return. “Thank you to our father in heaven and to our Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Earth,” Miguel Perez Sr. said in Spanish.

ICE does not tally how many veterans it has deported. Advocacy groups say the number could be up to thousands over the years.

A June report by the Government Accountability Office concluded ICE failed to review many veterans’ service record before deporting them, as required by law.

“Because ICE did not consistently follow these policies, some veterans who were removed may not have received the level of review and approval that ICE has determined is appropriate for cases involving veterans,” the report said.

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps members of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.