Miguel Perez Jr. moved to Chicago when he was eight years old, after his father got a job as a coach for the Chicago Sting soccer team. The family moved together as legal permanent residents in the mid-1980s.
When Miguel was 18-years-old he joined the Army. He served in Afghanistan with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group in 2002 and 2003, and was discharged in 2004. After he returned home from military service, he began experiencing the debilitating symptoms of severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He got sweats, shakes and nightmares, and felt constantly overwhelmed with anxiety.
“If I was stuck in traffic,” he say, “I would start panicking because somebody is going to hurt me, or [I] have this sense somebody is coming to get [me].” When there were too many people in the grocery store, he felt on high alert as if his life was at risk. He couldn’t shake the sense of constant threat or danger. Other people seemed like enemies.
Desperate for a reprieve, Miguel started to use alcohol and drugs – which he procured from a friend – to cope with the symptoms. By 2006 he was using drugs on a daily basis. In 2008, he was out with the friend when he was asked to carry a package of two kilos of cocaine across the street and drop it off with another person, who turned out to be an undercover police officer. Both Miguel and his friend were arrested and charged with manufacturing and delivering a controlled substance.
Miguel was not involved in actually making any drugs, but manufacturing charges are used to capture a wide variety of conduct that have little to do with actual manufacturing. Miguel explains that “if you grab some drugs and put it inside a bag, that’s manufacturing.” Miguel plead guilty and was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.
Mental health support is often hard to access in prison. Miguel got lucky, however, and did manage to access treatment for his PTSD symptoms for the first time while incarcerated. “I saw the same psychiatrist once a month and a psychologist twice a month, plus I had support groups,” he said. His symptoms improved with treatment, and he planned to continue working with mental health professionals through Veterans’ Affairs after his release. He had served his sentence, addressed his drug use and had stabilized his PTSD. He was ready to begin a new chapter in his life.
Instead of being released, however, Miguel was transferred from prison directly into ICE custody, where he spent time in a detention center. Then, he was deported to Mexico in March of 2018.
Drug trafficking convictions are among the most damaging types of convictions for a non-citizen to receive – and under immigration law, all selling- and distribution-related law violations, even minor ones, are considered drug trafficking. Any non-citizens (be they permanent residents like Miguel, people in the United States on visas, refugee claimants or undocumented people) convicted of trafficking are subject to mandatory detention and virtually assured deportation, with no possibility of ever returning to the United States. In these cases, immigration judges are not permitted to consider the particulars of an individual’s situation; like judges forced to impose mandatory minimum sentences, they must pursue deportation, no matter how minor the sales offense.
Now living in Tijuana, Mexico, Miguel’s access to mental health treatment is limited. Veterans’ Affairs can’t ship medication to him, and specialized therapy for PTSD is unavailable. He has had two major PTSD episodes since his arrival, and is terrified that they will continue. He lives alone with no family or support network nearby, and doesn’t know when he’ll see his two young children (both US citizens) or his parents again.
Miguel understands that he broke the law, but he served his sentence and worked hard to control his drug use and improve his mental health. “Yes, I committed a crime,” he says. “Yes, I pled guilty. But yes I served my time. I should go back home where my father, my mother, my nieces, my son, daughter, my whole community is in Chicago. That’s where I belong.”
Interview conducted October 12, 2018.