Miguel Pérez Jr. looked around the room. First Lady Melania Trump sat 24 seats away. Senators and representatives high-fived each other, chanting, “Four more years! Four more years!” Nancy Pelosi walked up to the podium. The red and white stripes of the American flag hung behind her. Silence.
“Members of Congress, the President of the United States!”
Pérez—an army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan—had been invited to attend the 2020 State of the Union Address by Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the U.S. Representative from Illinois’s 4th Congressional District.
“Being invited to the State of the Union, it’s huge,” Pérez said during a phone interview. “As soon as they called me and they asked me, I said yes.”
As he heard President Trump’s words ring across the chamber that day, though, his initial excitement was replaced by feelings of frustration.
Among the White House guests was Tony Rankins, a fellow army veteran who shared struggles very similar to Pérez’s.
“After struggling with drug addiction, Tony lost his job, his house, and his family. He was homeless,” the former president stated in his union address. “He is now a top tradesman, drug-free, reunited with his family, and he is here tonight. Tony, keep up the great work.”
Pérez agreed that Rankins deserved praise, but he also felt resentment at what he viewed as a damning double standard. Like many veterans who come back from deployment, Pérez relied on substance abuse to cope with readjusting to civilian life.
“You start dealing with this PTSD that you don’t understand, so you start drinking, you start doing drugs,” he said, referring to himself.
This eventually led to a non-violent drug charge against him, but unlike Rankins, Pérez was unable to rejoin his community after serving his prison sentence. Instead, he faced an extra, much more cruel punishment: deportation.
“I was still in prison for the drug charge [when] I found out I had an immigration hold,” Pérez recalled.
After working as a teacher’s aide for incarcerated people completing GEDs and associate degrees, he attempted to get another job processing juices and milks, only to be notified that pending deportation proceedings made him ineligible.
“I think there’s something wrong, I’m a United States veteran,” Pérez told Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but to no avail. “The day that I was supposed to come home, right in the lobby of the prison while I was walking out, ICE officers were there, and I got arrested.”
At his last court date, Senator Tammy Duckworth sent a letter advocating for Pérez, and there were many people present to protest his deportation proceedings. The judge, however, said it was out of her hands, and the deportation order was approved.
“We risked our lives, we went overseas, I jumped out of f---ing airplanes,” Pérez said. “My whole life was here, my kids, my family, my community, and you’re going to discard me just like that?”
When he was eventually deported in 2018, Pérez was given nothing besides two weeks’ worth of medication.
“I was left in Mexico with no medicine, no financial aid,” he said. “They just went ahead and deported me to Tamaulipas.”
From there, he traveled to Tijuana, where he found a community at the Deported Veterans Support House.
Commonly known as “the bunker,” the support house has served as a shelter and resource center for over 100 deported veterans. Carlos Luna, a member of the Green Card Veterans, accompanied Senator Duckworth to visit the center for Veterans Day in 2019.
“I had been to the bunker several times before that, but that day was different because veterans who were deported there had a different sense of hope,” Luna said. “It wasn’t someone trying to get elected. It was a sitting U.S. Senator. [The veterans] were able to see that someone really is out there doing more than lip service.”
When asked about the trip during a Zoom interview, Senator Duckworth was clear about her intentions: “Most people don't realize this is an issue. They don’t realize that many of our veterans serve despite not being American citizens and don’t gain citizenship automatically as a result of their service.”
She took the trip to Mexico with the hopes of bringing deported veterans into the national spotlight, and to a degree, she succeeded.
“I really saw the issue pick up a lot more steam when I spent Veterans Day in Tijuana, and I think that was a turning point,” she said.
Pérez was also present at the trip. During the year and a half he spent in Mexico, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker gave Pérez a pardon, which enabled him to gain U.S. citizenship and return home in October of 2019. A month later, he was back in Tijuana accompanying the Senator.
“I went to greet some of my brothers that I already knew from down there,” Pérez remembered. “I went and said, ‘Look, [Senator Duckworth] could’ve been anywhere in the world, but she’s right here, showing love.’ She told them, ‘I’m not stopping. I’m getting you all back.’ And she meant it.”
Deported veterans are not a new phenomenon. In fact, Pérez has not been the only deported veteran to attend a State of the Union Address. Hector Barajas and Marcos Chavez were also guests on separate occasions.
Though the issue has not received much national attention until recent years, immigrant veterans have been going through deportation proceedings as far back as Bill Clinton’s administration. His signing of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 effectively made it legal to deport permanent residents if they are convicted of a crime.
Joel Taboada, president of the Green Card Veterans, expressed concerns surrounding the lasting effects of this legislation: “In the 90s, there were a lot of immigration laws that were passed that had an adverse effect [on immigrant veterans].”
Taboada did not place the blame entirely on Clinton, though. “Every other administration since could have done something about it, but they didn’t,” he said.
While Taboada acknowledged a 2002 executive order signed by President Bush that was meant to expedite the naturalization process of non-citizens serving in an active-duty status, he emphasized the lack of tangible policy implementation that stretched across administrations.
Senator Duckworth shared similar sentiments.
“If someone has joined the military since President Bush took office, they should be getting citizenship,” she said. “What’s happening is, in fact, the paperwork is not being completed. The system is set up where the [Department of Defense] and Immigration [Services] are not working together to make sure these veterans are taken care of.”
As evidence of these structural failures, Taboada pointed to a June 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office.
“The report itself showed that different policy changes that happened during the Trump administration had an adverse effect on the number of veterans that were granted citizenship,” he said. “One of the reasons was that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) representatives that were on the military bases were pulled out. There was also a lack of [service members] wanting to apply for citizenship for fear of not being approved because of the person that was in office.”
When asked about his thoughts, Carlos Luna said the issue is much more structural.
“These men and women [come] from immigrant communities that already have a lack of social and fiscal capital,” he said. “They’re then put into this justice system where we know a person is more likely to do less time for a crime they didn’t commit if they plead guilty rather than going to court.”
His frustration was personal. As a veteran himself, he had conversed with many people he described as filled with cognitive dissonance.
“We’re coming from a place that hangs yellow ribbons everywhere, talks about supporting the troops and backing the blue, loving all these people in uniform,” he said. “But if they’re the wrong color, they don’t get the support that the others do when they f--- up.”
Luna was clear about what came next. “Those who are in most distress often need the most resources,” he said. “It’s our job to connect those dots and demonstrate to people that one subculture is not more deserving of help and resources than another.”
Luna also stressed the need for the Biden administration to do more for deported veterans than just releasing a formal statement. He then called for support for legislation Senator Duckworth has introduced in Congress.
“There’s three pieces of legislation I have been working on with the vets package,” Senator Duckworth said. “The Veterans Visa Protection Act, the Immigrant Veterans Eligibility Tracking System Act, and the Healthcare Opportunities for Patriots in Exile (HOPE) Act.”
Among other things, these would allow deported veterans to get a visa and attend their local Veterans Affairs for medical services.
Above all, though, Senator Duckworth stressed the importance of educating people about the realities that many immigrant veterans live. “That’s where the grassroots movements can really help.”
Pérez agreed. “This has to be in the headlines every day,” he concluded. “We got what it takes. [Government officials] have got to talk to us—the boots on the ground that have been fighting for us to return.”
This reporting was translated into Spanish in collaboration with Elsa Garcia Romero, educational administrator at Benemérito de las Americas High School in Coahuila, Mexico.