Miguel Perez Jr. is now an American citizen.
The 41-year-old deported veteran was officially sworn in as an American citizen Friday afternoon in Chicago.
“It’s official,” Perez said at the press conference at Lincoln United Methodist Church in Pilsen immediately following his swearing-in ceremony. “It’s been a long journey, a long battle.”
Perez faced a Monday deadline for a ruling on his citizenship application from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Had he not been granted citizenship, Perez would have been forced to return to Tijuana, Mexico, where he had been living for the past 18 months in what he described as terrible conditions.
When asked what would have happened if he had to return to Mexico, Perez said, “it would have just been horrible.”
“I want to thank my community, the state of Illinois and the greatest city on earth, Chicago,” Perez said while surrounded by friends and family at the church.
Perez’s attorney, Chris Bergin, said he received a call around noon with the news from the deputy district director for the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services.
“This seemed impossible”
Perez later showed off his citizenship certificate that he received after taking an oath.
“Not until I get the paper in my hand is it real. I want to thank God first and foremost. And I want to thank all the people who helped make this happen because just two months ago all this seemed impossible,” Perez said. “Two months ago, I was in Tijuana just wondering about my future and not being sure about what was the next step and now here I am.”
On Sept. 24, Perez returned to Chicago on a two-week humanitarian visa. Last weekend, Perez visited lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to help other veterans who have been deported.
On his trip to Capitol Hill, Perez met with lawmakers, including Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Chicago.
“I am so proud to finally be able to call Miguel Perez a fellow American. He sacrificed for our nation by serving overseas and, while this is long overdue, I’m glad Miguel can now breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate becoming a citizen of the country he loves and considers home," Duckworth said in a statement. "I send my best wishes to him and his family during this joyous time.”
He also talked with outspoken U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia; the Minnesota Democrat later became a U.S. citizen.
“It was amazing. She understood,” Perez said. “She gave us a lot of positive feedback.”
“I’m here alive”
Brought to the United States as a boy by his parents, Perez said he knows no other home than Chicago.
In the early 2000s, Perez served two tours in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks. Upon his return, he said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which led to drug abuse and ultimately his arrest.
The conviction, according to his lawyer, was the primary reason Perez was denied citizenship. But an executive order signed by then-President George W. Bush in 2002 should have provided a path to citizenship for non-citizen service members such as Perez.
On Aug. 30, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker pardoned Perez of his conviction.
Carlos Luna, president of the Chicago-based Green Card Veterans, said Perez will now serve as an advisory member to help other veterans who have been deported.
“We’re excited to have Miguel and be able to lead other veterans that are exiled in 40 other countries back home,” Luna said.
Despite his struggle, Perez said he wouldn’t have changed anything.
“I’ve learned about policy and about myself. I’m just glad, happy and thankful that I made it back alive because just recently another deported veteran just made it across the border in a casket,” Perez said. “I’m here alive.”
Michael Puente covers Chicago and Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.