Ending a 16-month quest to stay in a country where he was raised and that he fought to defend, Miguel Perez Jr., an Army veteran with a green card and a felony drug conviction, has been deported to Mexico, where he has not lived since childhood.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed Sunday that Perez boarded an ICE flight at Gary/Chicago International Airport in Indiana and was flown to Brownsville, Texas. There, ICE officers escorted Perez across the border and turned him over to Mexican authorities.
Perez was deported without the customary warning and opportunity to say goodbye to his family. He had no money or clothes, except for a few items from the detention center, and was left in Matamoros, a border town in Tamaulipas state, where the U.S. State Department has warned Americans not to travel because of high crime.
While boarding the flight, Perez said, ICE agents took selfies "like fishermen with a prize fish." They singled him out and escorted him across the border ahead of a busload of other deportees, he said.
"They did some horrible things, and people have got to know," he said. "They wanted to make sure to get rid of me first."
ICE officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Perez's claims.
Claudia Valenzuela, detention project director for the National Immigrant Justice Center, said she is not surprised by Perez's account.
"We've always heard of things over the years and knew there could be aggressive behavior and tactics by officers," Valenzuela said. "But this whole issue of almost mocking folks or playing with folks' emotions, which I think is particularly cruel, is one that we're hearing more and more of."
On Monday, his mother, his minister and another advocate flew to Tijuana, where Perez is in hiding, to deliver a suitcase of clothes, shoes, a Cubs baseball cap and prescriptions.
"This is an intolerable way to treat a man who fought bravely for this nation," said Emma Lozano, a minister at Lincoln United Methodist Church in Chicago who has been fighting Perez's case. "They have left him homeless and penniless in a dangerous place, without food or money or clothes or needed medications."
His mother, Esperanza Montes Perez, said this outcome is no more painful than the last 16 months, which have kept her in constant agony.
"Who will be responsible if my son loses his life over there?" she said tearfully.
Raised in Chicago since age 8, Perez enlisted before the Sept. 11 attacks and served until 2004. He was deployed to Afghanistan and served with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group.
After his military service, Perez sought treatment at the Veterans Affairs hospital near Maywood, Ill., where doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He was supposed to return for more tests to determine whether he also had a traumatic brain injury.
In the meantime, he reconnected with a childhood friend who provided free drugs and alcohol.
On Nov. 26, 2008, while with that friend, Perez handed a laptop case containing cocaine to an undercover officer. Perez pleaded guilty to the drug charge and served half of a 15-year prison sentence.
Although Perez was convicted of delivering less than 100 grams of cocaine, prosecutors have said he was arrested for delivering much more and received a reduced sentence after a plea deal.
Prosecutors also pointed out that Perez was given a general discharge from the military after a drug infraction.
Perez is one of many veterans, some of whom sustained injuries and emotional trauma during combat, who have been decorated for service, then confronted with the possibility of deportation after committing a crime.
As with many others, Perez mistakenly thought he became a U.S. citizen when he took an oath to protect the nation. He discovered that was not the case when he was summoned to immigration court shortly before his release from a state penitentiary, where he had served seven years.
Instead of heading home to Chicago from prison, Perez was placed in the custody of ICE and transferred to a detention center for immigrants awaiting deportation.
Perez, 39, said Thursday in a call from a detention center in Kankakee, Ill., that he became worried when all of his electronic devices had been shut off. He had been planning to speak to his 10-year-old son the next morning, but never got the chance.
He still doesn't know what he'll tell his son when he calls him from Mexico.
This month, Perez's petition for citizenship retroactive to when he joined the military in 2001 was denied by immigration officials.
In addition to the application for citizenship, he petitioned Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner for clemency and appealed to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals for relief under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, a protection that resembles asylum.
Because drug cartels often try to recruit deported veterans for their combat experience, Perez and human rights advocates believe his life is in danger in Mexico.
Both requests for relief were denied. Perez said he has already been approached.
"The threats are very real, very serious," he said. "They want to prove a point."
His supporters included U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, who made a long-shot bid to keep him in the country by using a little-known legal maneuver known as a private bill, which is intended to help specific individuals. The bill did not get moved past committee.
Montes Perez, a U.S. citizen, was a bundle of mixed emotions Monday as she prepared to pass through airport security and catch her flight. Though she now fears for her son's life, he is a free man for the first time in 10 years. Across the border, she can finally wrap her arms around him.
"Now I'm close to doing that," she said. "I love him.... I'm his mother."