Chicago (AFP) – Miguel and Esperanza Perez stood outside Chicago’s immigration courthouse, clutching an American flag folded into a triangle in a gesture of respect.
The flag once flew over a US military base in Afghanistan, where the couple’s son Miguel Perez Jr served two tours in a Special Forces unit.
The 38-year-old was now jailed, and at the mercy of an immigration judge inside the courthouse.
The military veteran, a legal permanent resident, was subject to deportation after being convicted of a drug crime.
Had he been a citizen, he simply would have served his prison time and been released. But now he was trying to avoid becoming one of the hundreds of US military veterans, all honorably discharged, to be similarly deported.
Perez thought he had automatically become a naturalized citizen when he joined the military — a common misconception among immigrants enlisted in the US armed forces.
Enlistees qualify for expedited naturalization, but they still have to apply and go through the process.
Some are unaware of the requirements, and others cannot comply — because they are serving in foreign lands. Still others have been victims of bureaucratic bungling.
Convicted in 2010 for the manufacture or delivery of more than two pounds (one kilogram) of cocaine, Perez was sentenced to 15 years in jail.
He was remanded in custody by immigration authorities last year after being granted early release from prison.
In Perez’s case, his family hoped their son’s military service would mitigate his crime and convince the judge to let him stay.
“I hope today I bring home my son,” Esperanza Perez said before a cluster of television news cameras outside the courthouse.
“My son is my hero, is your hero.”
She was optimistic that the judge would consider the mental scars of war that drove her son to drug use, and the potential dangers he could face in Mexico, with its drug cartels.
But it would take weeks for the judge to rule in March and for the Perezes to learn whether their son could come home.
– ‘Your life is over’ –
On the other side of the US-Mexico border, Hector Barajas lives the life Miguel Perez Jr is trying to avoid.
Barajas, a 40-year-old US Army veteran, was deported to Mexico in 2004. He had pleaded guilty to shooting at a car.
When he first arrived in Mexico — a country he had not seen since he was seven — Barajas said his first thought was that his “life is over.”
“You have to come to grips with the reality,” he said.
Barajas now runs a group home in the border city of Tijuana to help other deported veterans. About 30 of them have lived there at one time or another, most in their 60s and 70s.
“Part of our job here is to support them, help the guys get their IDs, help them find jobs, so that they can adjust to their lives down here,” Barajas said.
The vets are waging legal battles to return to the US — a process that can take years, with no guarantee of success.
“A lot of them have had a hard time coping,” Barajas said. “It’s very hard to accept the reality that we might be here for a very long time.”
US laws, perversely, allow deported veterans to return when they are dead — for burial in a US military cemetery.
– Aggravated felonies –
The ranks of deportees include veterans of US wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. No one has an exact count, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has tracked down nearly 300 of them.
They were swept up by changes in immigration laws, implemented in the mid-1990s, that greatly expanded the types of crimes — known as aggravated felonies — that trigger the mandatory deportation of legal permanent residents.
An aggravated felony can be any crime of violence with a sentence of a year or more, including domestic abuse and gun possession without a permit.
“It’s a long list,” that also includes minor drug convictions, said Evelyn Cruz, a law professor at Arizona State University and an expert on immigration law.
Aggravated felonies tie immigration judges’ hands. No matter the extenuating circumstances, such as military service, deportation is mandated.
“An aggravated felony… is a death knell to their case,” said Bardis Vakili, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU.
– Perez’s fate –
And so it was for Perez.
Weeks after his parents stood in front of the Chicago immigration court pleading for their son’s release, he was ordered deported.
“The thing that seems unjust to me is that he was not illegal,” Miguel Perez Sr said after the deportation order.
“He entered legally and had the right to citizenship.”
For now, the younger Perez’s fate rests with elected officials — a clemency petition with Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and a request that Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, herself a veteran, intervene. Neither has indicated what they will do.
With Perez still in detention, bills before Congress to help deported vets might be his last hope. So far, none has been passed into law.