Miguel Perez Jr. was still in shock days after Gov. J.B. Pritzker granted him clemency, opening the door for the deported U.S. Army veteran’s possible return to Chicago.
“I’m still … like, wow, this really happened,” Perez said Tuesday by phone from Mexico.
Also Tuesday, Perez’s Chicago-based attorney, Chris Bergin, went to the local office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to appeal its denial of Perez’s citizenship application. The lawyer is arguing the recent clemency bolsters the case that Perez has good moral character and should be allowed back into the country.
Perez was deported in 2018 after serving a 7½-year prison sentence for a felony drug conviction. A native of Mexico, Perez had lived in Chicago since he was a child and was a legal resident. He joined the U.S. Army just before 9/11 — serving with a Special Forces unit in Afghanistan — and mistakenly thought he became a U.S. citizen when his military service started.
He fought his deportation order and petitioned for citizenship, retroactive to when he joined the military in 2001. But the petition was denied just before Perez was deported, Bergin said.
Bergin filed an appeal with USCIS, a federal agency under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Bergin had an appointment with the agency for Tuesday long before they found out about Pritzker’s decision to grant Perez clemency.
“Then right before, we got the pardon,” Bergin said by phone Tuesday afternoon. “So that was new information that I could bring to them.”
He argues that the agency should use its discretion to grant Perez citizenship because his military service demonstrates good moral character.
“He’s very upbeat and hopeful,” Bergin said about Perez. “But he also, you know, is realistic. It’s not guaranteed by any means. We are just hoping, though, that they will see this as an opportunity to do the right thing.”
A spokesperson in Chicago for USCIS declined to comment on Perez’s case, citing privacy concerns.
“Immigration benefits are granted on a case-by-case basis after a rigorous evaluation, which includes criminal record checks. While the agency cannot comment on specific cases, USCIS adheres to immigration law in its adjudications,” the spokesperson said by email.
As Bergin met with federal officials, Perez remained in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, where he awaited word on whether he can return to Chicago.
For Perez, word of the clemency already feels like the best news he could have received. Now, he just has to wait for news of his citizenship case.
“The next one would be coming back home,” Perez said.
He has two children — a 22-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son — who still live in Chicago. He’s been able to talk to his family here and there since his deportation to Mexico, but he said it doesn’t feel the same.
“It’s heartbreaking sometimes,” Perez said.
Agency officials told Bergin they would respond in 30 days to his appeal. Even if the federal agency again denies Perez’s application for citizenship, he still has another legal avenue to appeal that decision, Bergin said.
Pritzker’s clemency also means Perez could petition to get his conviction vacated from the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, Bergin said.
Perez, now 41, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital near Maywood after he left the military. 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 had been given a general discharge from the Army because of an earlier drug infraction.
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