A Chicago immigration judge said Monday she will issue a written ruling within weeks on whether Miguel Perez Jr., a decorated war veteran with a green card, must return to his native Mexico after serving time in a state prison for a felony drug conviction.
Immigration Judge Robin Rosche is weighing Perez’s request for relief under the United Nations Convention against Torture, a protection that resembles asylum. Under that international provision, the U.S. agrees not to deport people who are not American citizens or nationals to another country where they could be tortured.
Perez’s attorney, Chris Bergin, argued in court Monday 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.
“There’s a pattern of impunity of the government either participating or looking the other way clearly in human rights abuses,” Bergin said.
Prosecutors rejected the argument that the danger allegedly facing Perez qualifies under the torture provision.
“I understand it’s a sympathetic case because he has served our country,” said Anastasie Senat, assistant chief counsel for the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “But it is Congress’ law that I’m called to enforce and that we are called to enforce and to respect, and in this situation there is no discretion.”
Perez broke the law, she said, and must face all of the consequences of his conviction, including deportation.
Wearing orange prison scrubs with his wrists bound, Perez appeared before the judge on a 32-inch flat-screen TV from an undisclosed location in Chicago. He answered questions from the judge and lawyers about his family history, upbringing and decision to enlist in the U.S. Army in April 2001.
He also described his fears about being a marked man in Mexico. Veterans are often easily identified by their tattoos, language and mannerisms. Perez described three tattoos: the Statue of Liberty, a battle cross to honor a fallen soldier and the U.S. Army Special Forces insignia that reads “To liberate the oppressed.”
“It’s not what I think would happen to me. It’s what I know,” said Perez, who was diagnosed after the war with post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s not like I can … fit in and blend in. It just doesn’t work that way. How long can I hide the fact I’ve been deported and I was in the military?”
Perez 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. As with others, Perez mistakenly thought he became a U.S. citizen when he took an oath to protect the nation. Superiors never offered to help him expedite his citizenship, he told the court Monday.
He discovered the oversight when he was summoned to immigration court shortly before his release from Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, where he served seven years for handing over a bag of cocaine to an undercover police officer. 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. More than 109,000 service men and women had become citizens by the end of 2015, according to statistics from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“This is the same as somebody fighting a life sentence,” Perez told the judge. “The outcome of this determines the rest of my life spent away from my society, my way of life, my loved ones and not to mention, my country. … This is my country regardless of what happens here.”
As she rose from the bench, Rosche invited family members in the courtroom to step up to the camera to greet Perez, which they did, one by one. His sister Sandra Marshall, also a legal permanent resident, stepped up to the microphone with her daughter.
“We miss you so much,” she told her brother. “We can’t wait to have you home.”
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