An Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan but was denied U.S. citizenship and deported to Mexico is back in Chicago for the first time in 18 months.
Miguel Perez Jr., 41, was granted a temporary visa and left Mexico on Monday to come to Chicago to meet with immigration officials and have his citizenship request reconsidered.
Surrounded by friends and family, he’s back in his home of nearly a decade.
The Army veteran served seven years for a felony drug conviction, but upon his release, U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enforcement denied Perez’s citizenship request and deported him to Matamoros, Mexico, in March 2018.
The veteran’s case is complicated and spans many years. WBEZ has reported on similar veterans who have been deported.
Just days ago, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker pardoned Perez of that crime, giving him hope for citizenship.
“I am so blessed to be here. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was stranded in a place that I don’t belong,” Perez said Tuesday afternoon at Lincoln United Methodist Church in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. “We’ll see what happens. I have faith in God that I’m going to be able to stay home. I have to stay home. I can’t go back.”
Perez arrived back to Chicago from Texas on Tuesday morning. He’s scheduled to meet with immigration officials on Wednesday, a meeting that had previously been postponed.
Perez was allowed back into the United States from Mexico on a two-week humanitarian visa. When asked if he’s worried about the meeting being canceled, Perez said, “No, I’ve got faith and I have all these wonderful people praying for me. I feel blessed, strong.”
Rev. Walter Coleman, pastor at United Methodist Church, said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security postponed Wednesday’s hearing.
He said U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., is working with Perez and his team on his case.
“Though he came here and is ready to appear, they canceled that particular hearing. If necessary, we’ll apply for an extension,” Coleman said. ‘It’s just one of the more complicated steps. This is a beautiful brother who has been caught in bureaucracies and difficulties, and all the difficulties that had to be overcome in order to get him here. We’re not surprised by this. We’re not discouraged.”
The meeting, as of Tuesday afternoon, was back on for Wednesday, according to Perez’s support team.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Perez was hugged by his parents, Miguel and Esperanza Perez, both of whom were overcome with emotion.
“I just want to thank the people, all the people. In the name of our lord Jesus Christ, thanks to everyone,” Miguel Perez Sr. said in his native Spanish.
“He’s back at home. Home where he belongs,” Esperanza said in her native Spanish. “I just want to thank everybody. My heart is filled with gratitude.”
Perez said he is looking forward to meeting with his 12-year-old son and 22-year-old daughter, who he has not seen in nearly a decade.
Carlos Luna, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens #5310 and Green Card Veterans, said he is working to help secure Perez’s medical benefits to assist in fighting post-traumatic stress disorder suffered from his two-tours in Afghanistan.
“He’s not taking any handouts, it’s not a public charge. He fought for these benefits. He fought for that health care ,and now it’s time for us to get it to him,” Luna said.
Michael Puente covers Chicago and Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews. WBEZ reporter María Ines Zamudio contributed to this report.