At the most fundamental, human, moral level, the ingratitude with which this nation is treating Miguel Perez Jr.– along with thousands of other so-called ‘green card veterans’ who have been deported – is a stain of dishonor on all of us.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who advocated strenuously on Perez’s behalf, called his deportation by the government “disgraceful.”
“This case is a tragic example of what can happen when national immigration policies are based more in hate than on logic,” she said in a statement. At the very least, she said, Perez should have been allowed to exhaust legal appeals to the government’s decision to deport him.
Perhaps most disgraceful is how a government that betrays its own veterans can judge Perez to be lacking in “good moral character.”
Perez and other green card vets are caught up in a web of issues –Veterans Affairs’ failure to provide adequate services for many vets with post-traumatic stress disorder, the harmfulness of the war on drugs, and most starkly, the brutal impact of stepped-up deportations on immigrant families – including mixed families like Perez’s, whose parents and two children are U.S. citizens.
Perez, who served two tours in Afghanistan, was hustled out of the country without a chance to say goodbye to his children.
“A lot of balls were dropped here,” said Carlos Luna, chair of the Green Card Veterans chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, which organized in support of Perez. “Our government seems more concerned with sending people to war than taking care of people who come back from war.”
According to Luna, the Army failed to provide PTSD services when Perez showed symptoms after his second deployment to Afghanistan, even before his discharge in 2004. In 2008 Perez had qualified for PTSD services from the VA, and had an appointment for traumatic brain injury screening after he was injured when his vehicle was hit by a grenade.
But this was a period of long delays for service. While waiting, Perez connected with an old friend who was into drinking and drugs, and that association led to an arrest and conviction.
“It was not until he landed in state prison that he was able to get some of the help he needed,” Luna said. “He was seeing a doctor, he was doing some group work. He was being rehabilitated.”
Now, deported to Mexico, Perez has no access to the services he needs – and has earned – for his recovery.
Veterans with untreated PTSD are prone to substance abuse and legal troubles. But even those who go to prison can go home and get their lives on track – if they are citizens.
And Perez should have been a citizen. As a legal permanent resident who’d entered the country legally with his family and lived here since he was 11, he was eligible for citizenship during and after his military service. According to Chris Bergin, Perez’s attorney, he thought he was a citizen after he took the military oath pledging loyalty to the Constitution. That’s a common belief among immigrants who join the military, according to advocates.
The U.S. military had recognized that it “dropped the ball” by not helping immigrant service members navigate naturalization, and in 2009, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began a program to help immigrants become citizens during basic training. That program was expanded in 2013.
But in January, USCIS announced it was ending the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative. Duckworth issued a statement saying the move “violates the commitment we have made to thousands of brave men and women who signed up to defend our country,” and adding, “It’s disappointing to see the Trump administration head in such a shameful direction.”
Days before his deportation, USCIS denied an application for retroactive citizenship he’d filed last year. Because of his drug conviction, the agency ruled, Perez was unable to demonstrate that he was a person of “good moral character” and was “permanently ineligible for naturalization.”
Gov. Bruce Rauner did more than drop a ball in that case; he fumbled a chance to do the right thing. Facing a primary contest against state Rep. Jeanne Ives, who was appealing to Trump voters in the state by criticizing the governor for signing a sanctuary bill earlier this year, Rauner denied Perez’s application for clemency in February. Clemency could have opened the way to a different decision on Perez’s bid for citizenship.
Rauner sacrificed justice and compassion but squeaked through his primary.
A study of green card vets by the ACLU of California found deportations only began after a 1996 immigration law signed by President Bill Clinton dramatically expanded the grounds for deportation and eliminated discretion by immigration judges to consider military service, family ties, and rehabilitation.
The ACLU also argues that USCIS is going beyond the law – which requires only an honorable or general discharge for veterans who served during conflict as proof of “good moral character” – in order to deny citizenship to veterans. And it found that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is ignoring its own policies, which call for supervisory review and prosecutorial discretion in cases involving veterans.
Duckworth has introduced a package of bills that would prohibit the deportation of veterans who are not violent offenders, allow deported vets to access VA services, enable the Department of Homeland Security to fast-track naturalization for veterans and service members, and establish a naturalization office at each military training base.
At this point, the best chance for Perez could be the election of a new governor in Illinois. Bergin, who is appealing the denial of citizenship, said that “with a new governor, we would apply for a pardon and he could grant it.”
Last December, the ACLU of California won what it called a “landmark legal victory” allowing a Marine Corps veteran who’d been deported to Mexico to return to the U.S. Key to the ruling was a pardon issued by Gov. Jerry Brown.
As for the rest of the green card veterans – including thousands now living in fear in the U.S. – we need to call out hypocrisy of the superpatriots who demand that football players salute the flag and the chickenhawks who dodge service but send other people’s sons and daughters to war — and demand fair treatment and adequate services for all our veterans.