A U.S. green-card holder who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan went on a hunger strike this week when he found out that his appeal to not be deported was denied.
Miguel Perez, Jr., 39, was released from prison in late 2016 after serving time for a 2010 felony drug conviction. He went right into the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and has remained in detention ever since.
A 7th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his appeal last week, which had argued that his life was endangered if he returned to Mexico. Drug cartels, he said, forcefully recruit veterans.
“If it comes down to me being deported, I would rather leave this world in the country I gave my heart for,” Perez told The Chicago Tribune on Wednesday.
Upon his return from Afghanistan, Perez was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a possible brain injury. He turned to drinking and drugs, and was caught delivering cocaine in 2008.
He said he mistakenly thought he became a U.S. citizen when he took an oath to protect the nation and didn’t realize this wasn’t the case until an appearance in immigration court leading up to his release from prison.
The American Civil Liberties Union has said that many non-citizens who have served in the U.S. military have come to face a similar fate as Perez.
“The federal government failed to ensure that service members were naturalized during military careers, or shortly thereafter, although nearly all deported veterans were eligible to naturalize during their service, often failing to provide adequate resources and assistance to complete and file paperwork so that applications were expeditiously adjudicated,” according to a 2016 ACLU report titled “Discharged Then Discarded.”
Perez’s attorney, Chris Bergin, filed a stay on deportation based on Perez’s PTSD and possible brain injury diagnoses, arguing that he needs to remain in the country for medical treatment ― care he’s entitled to as a veteran. He also said he believes that Perez deserves retroactive citizenship.
“If you’re going to put your hand on your hearts every time at a game, you’re going to say thank you for your service and wear American flag lapel pins and you’re going to criticize football players for taking a knee during the national anthem, it seems that’s all superficial and false patriotism if you’re not caring about an actual military veteran,” Bergin said.
Perez is hoping that Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner will pardon his conviction. Bergin told HuffPost that if the pardon is granted, he’ll argue that the grounds to remove Perez no longer exists.
“However, as of now, it is the position of ICE and some courts that a pardon of a drug crime does not eliminate the crime for removal purposes,” Bergin said. “Our other strategies are to push for his release due to a recent psychiatric exam that show Miguel’s PTSD is severe and he is in danger of self-harm if continued in detention. He needs to be released on either an ankle bracelet or an order of supervision so he can access his V.A. benefits to get treatment.”
ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.