CHICAGO (AP) — An Army veteran who was deported to Mexico in 2018 arrived back in Chicago Tuesday for a final chance at becoming a U.S. citizen and living in the city he has called home since boyhood.
Federal immigration authorities granted Miguel Perez Jr. a two-week parole into the U.S. for an immigration hearing, according to his attorney. The 41-year-old Perez has a green card as a permanent U.S. resident, but after serving time for a 2008 non-violent drug conviction was deported last year. Then last month, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a pardon , erasing the conviction and reviving Perez's chances to become a citizen.
"I'm speechless. I wish I could say a lot more but it's just, I'm choked up," a teary-eyed Perez said outside a church, hours after landing in Chicago. "I'm so blessed to be here."
His immigration hearing was set for Wednesday, but it's unknown when immigration officials will decide the case.
Perez's attorney, Chris Bergin, hoped for a speedy decision so Perez wouldn't have to return to Mexico after the 14 days are up.
Officials with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment, citing privacy laws.
Perez is among several deported military members who have been recently pardoned by Democratic governors. His case has received wide support, including from Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a veteran who said Tuesday that Perez should never been deported in the first place.
Perez was born in Mexico, but his family immigrated when he was a young child. His parents are naturalized U.S. citizens and his two children were born in the U.S.
He joined the Army in 2002 and served in Afghanistan where he suffered a brain injury and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
It was the disorder, which caused crippling anxiety, that led him to the drug charge, according to Bergin. Perez wasn't able to immediately get medical care through a federal Veterans Administration hospital, so he turned to drugs.
In 2008, he was accused of giving cocaine to an undercover police officer. He pleaded guilty and spent seven years in prison and was then turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who detained him for two years. Perez was deported last year after failing to persuade a federal appeals court to block his removal.
Perez said he faced "dangerous" conditions while living in Tijuana, Mexico, after his deportation, but he didn't want to talk about it.
He also declined to discuss about how he was managing PTSD, saying it was too personal.
His doctor was among those who came to welcome him home at the church.
"Miguel was failed on multiple occasions by our immigration service, for sure, and our treatment service for veterans," said Dr. David Ansell of Rush University Medical Center, who started treating Perez while he was in ICE custody. "People need treatment, not deportation."
Family members and friends from the church stood by Perez's side Tuesday, many of them offering warm hugs and prayers.
His father, Miguel Angel Perez, said the military was an important part of their family, with a grandfather and uncle who served during wars. He said having his son back with him Chicago was priceless.
"Now, I have a big heart," he said in Spanish.
Perez said the decision for him to come to the U.S. happened so quickly that he was still dazed. He said he was most looking forward to seeing his children and eating some Chicago-style pizza and popcorn.
"We'll see what happens," he said. "But I have faith in God that I am going to be able to stay home."