Miguel Perez Jr. felt like he was in a dream as he stood outside a Chicago church Tuesday surrounded by people who’d championed his return to the U.S.
Perez, a U.S. Army veteran, has been living in the Mexican border town of Tijuana following his deportation last year after he served a 7 1/2-year prison sentence for a felony drug conviction. In late August, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker granted Perez clemency for the conviction, opening the door for him to return to Chicago, where he grew up.
“I’m so blessed to be here because just a couple weeks ago I was stranded in a place that I don’t belong, where I couldn’t leave the house because ... it’s a dangerous place,” Perez said during a news conference Tuesday hours in the Pilsen area after landing in Chicago. "There’s death threats. It’s just somewhere where I don’t wish anybody to be, especially if you are not from there.”
But Perez’s stay in the city he considers home is temporary. Agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Laredo, Texas, allowed Perez to enter the country for two weeks so he could attend an appointment with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is scheduled for Wednesday in Chicago, said Chris Bergin, Perez’s immigration attorney.
USCIS declined to comment, citing privacy restrictions.
The meeting is part of Perez’s appeal to the federal agency, which previously denied his petition for citizenship.
Perez joined the U.S. Army before 9/11 — serving with a Special Forces unit in Afghanistan — and has said he mistakenly thought that his tenure in the military bestowed him citizenship.
Perez, 41, said he felt shocked to be back in Chicago. When he landed, he grabbed a bag of Garrett Popcorn and his supporters gave him a navy Chicago Bears hat. But soon, he was back on the roller coaster that his immigration case has become.
He was given a letter telling him his appointment for Wednesday was canceled and no new date was given. Then hours later, Bergin said, he got a call from federal officials telling him the meeting was going to happen.
“It’s like a ping pong ball,” Bergin said by phone. “I think they realized the efforts we had made. They didn’t know he was in (the country) until he was in which was yesterday."
Perez has fought his deportation and petitioned for retroactive citizenship to when he joined the military in 2001. Bergin said they plan to further their legal argument by presenting a copy of Pritzker’s pardon.
Perez has gained a wide range of supporters, including U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth.
“Miguel Perez was willing to protect our nation in uniform and his experiences — including the great lengths he went to reform his life — show us why we should never give up on our combat veterans,” the senator from Illinois said in a news release. “... It will be a proud day for our country when we can call Miguel a fellow American.”
During Tuesday’s press conference, Perez’s father, Miguel Perez Sr., clutched onto an American flag his son brought from Afghanistan. The family had a pot of pozole, a traditional Mexican stew, waiting for Perez at home.
The elder Perez wasn’t sure what more officials needed to see for his son to be given U.S. citizenship.
“If the governor pardoned him, there’s nothing on his record,” the elder Perez said in Spanish. “Additionally, he paid his debt to society. What more do they want?"
He said there were days when he and his wife, Esperanza, would get frustrated as they pushed back against the deportation.
“I would tell her, ‘No, the mother of a solider can’t give up,’” he recalled. “'Miguel went to war to fight for all of us. You have to get up.' Then a couple days would go by, and I would be the one defeated and she would tell me to get up.”
After Perez Jr. left the military, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital near Maywood. In 2008, he was arrested after handing a laptop case containing cocaine to an undercover police officer. He pleaded guilty to possessing less than 100 grams of cocaine and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was given a general discharge from the Army because of an earlier drug infraction.
Perez said he was eager to see a doctor to begin treating his post-traumatic stress disorder while he is in Chicago.
Even after Wednesday’s appointment, it’s not clear when Perez will get a decision about his appeal from federal officials, Bergin said. Still, the younger Perez was leaning on his faith to get him through the next two weeks, the amount of time he can stay in the U.S. if he’s not granted citizenship.
“I have faith in God that I’m going to be able to stay home,” Perez said as his mother held his arm. “I have to stay home. I can’t go back.”