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Opinion: About that veteran being deported...

Eric Dehm
February 06, 2018 - 12:20 pm

It's easy to get caught up in a headline and form an opinion with little to no fact-checking. Case in point: The story of former Army Private First Class Miguel Perez Jr. A story that's being reported in many locations with key facts left out either intentionally, through sheer laziness, or a combination of both. 

On a recent edition of Morning Briefing I discussed the plight of Perez who, after losing an appeal and being denied clemency, faces deportation to Mexico. This discussion was based on a few news reports. News reports which had a few points in common.

They stated the following: Perez was an Army veteran and legal permanent resident "Green Card" holder. He had deployed to Aghanistan twice. He was diagnosed with PTSD. He had served time in prison and was now being deported.

The first few stories I found on the issue didn't have much info beyond that, aside from some recent quotes from Perez stating he was going on a hunger strike as he would rather die than go to Mexico and how he had "sacrificed his life" fighting for our country. In his defense, Mexico is a country where he hasn't lived for about 30 years, even though it is the only country he's a citizen of.

It's a difficult situation to form an opinion on without all of the details, which it was clear to me I wasn't getting.

I want to support my fellow veterans, who doesn't? But we all know there are bad eggs who have worn the uniform and the stories I first saw just didn't give me enough to figure out what the deal with former Pfc. Perez was. Some of the missing information was glaring starting with what the crime he commited actually was, beyond a vague "drug charge." Did he get caught with a joint during a traffic stop or was he Pablo Escobar reincarnated? Was he a model Soldier or the unit dirtbag?

So many questions were left unanswered by what I had read, I decided to dig deeper and see what I could find.

This article from Slate mentions he did seven years out of a 15-year drug sentence. That's significant time, and makes the minor possession question highly unlikely and similarly shoots down the Escobar reborn theory.

Along with not giving detail beyond the time sentenced, the author takes the onus for whatever the crime was off of Perez. According to that story, PTSD led him to a friend who had a lot of drugs and alcohol and "next thing he knew" he's convicted on a drug charge and facing 15 years. It also says he wasn't able to receive treatment for that PTSD because he was arrested. He was arrested in 2008, everything I've seen says he got out in 2004. That makes me wonder when he was diagnosed, because unless it was in the days or weeks before his arrest, it would seem he had plenty of time to seek treatment. Again, details aren't being offered. These are questions that reporters should have directly asked of the family, lawyer, and Perez himself. 

If they didn't ask, that's laziness. If they did ask and decided not to present the answers in their stories, that's something else entirely.

I finally found some of the pertinent info in a story in the Chicago Tribune that is, funny enough, cited in the Slate piece. Of course the info on exactly what his conviction was for is buried nine paragraphs in. After reading about his two tours to Afghanistan (more on that later), planned hunger strike, and various other things, you come across the minor fact that it was a felony drug conviction for attempting to sell less than 100 grams of cocaine to undercover officers.

You also learn that the conviction resulted from a plea and that prosecutors maintain he was actually arrested with a much larger amount, more than two pounds.

Funny that this isn't mentioned in many articles and in others, like the Tribune, comes up so deep into the story. It's not hard to explain though. Look at these two possible headlines:

"Army Veteran Faces Deportation"

"Convicted Cocaine Dealer Faces Deportation"

Which one do you think more people will click on? The first, of course, because it's out of the ordinary, which is what news organizations are looking for. Dog bites man? No thanks. Man bites dog? Tell me more!

That's part of what's going on here, but I'd say there's likely a little bit more to it than just looking for clicks considering the current immigration debate in this country. There are many in the media who have taken a stance on the issue and you can't help but wonder if those conveniently leaving out the facts are using Perez's story to push their preferred narrative by saying "Look! They're even deporting veterans!" Of course to do that they'd benefit from leaving out details as you'd have trouble finding too many Americans, on either political side, who are in favor of letting non-citizen felons stay in the country regardless of what they do, or did, for a living.

Deportation is what typically happens to felons who aren't citizens whether they were doctors, soldiers, mechanics, etc. But again, the fact that he is a convicted felon is a combination of buried, minimized and plain left out of many articles about Pfc. Perez. His veteran status isn't left out though. To the contrary, it's front and center. Even though (not all that surprisingly in my opinion, considering his later issues) it turns out his time in the Army to an early end.

That's another thing missing from quite a few of these stories. According to several outlets, Perez was given a general discharge for a drug infraction. That's not to say he's the worst person in the world, but he's also not Flo Groberg -- an immigrant, naturalized citizen and Medal of Honor recipient. No, Perez is a guy who did a couple years in the Army, leaving under less than honorable conditions and then committed a felony a few years afterwards. They say you should choose your martyrs wisely. The more I've found out about Perez, the less I'm convinced that was done here.

Ready for a third possible headline?

"Man Kicked Out of Army for Drug Use Faces Deportation After Felony Drug Conviction"

That's the most accurate one yet about this story based on the info available. 

While he did deploy to Afghanistan, every story I've seen talks about two deployments, with some like CNN even including it in the headline. But in the few stories that give any timeline, like this one from TheHill.com, the dates of his "two deployments" are given as October '02 - April '03 and May '03 - October '03. That certainly seems like one deployment with mid-tour "RnR" leave. Is it possible he deployed for 6 months, came home for one month and then deployed again? I didn't think so, but Navy deployments to Afghanistan like the one I went on are a bit different, so I asked several Army vets and each one has said "no" and pointed out that the processing time for post/pre-deployment alone would render that timeline unbelievable for two separate deployments for any Soldier not in the special ops community.

If Perez were an operator, you can be sure that'd be in paragraph one. Same thing if he were a combat vet. Those things make him a more sympathetic character, in the same way multiple tours would.

I would bet the "two deployment" talk is coming from his camp, and I'll give reporters the benefit of the doubt who simply don't know enough to recognize the same red flags a vet would when looking at those dates. That said, it does indeed serve to make him a more sympathetic character, which more and more seems to be the goal of some of the authors based on what they are deciding to include in their stories. Point is, there is a possibility that it's intentional and not based out of ignorance.

Oddly, I have yet to see a story which even mentions anything about his unit or MOS. I've also yet to see anyone he served with come out in support of him. If someone I served with was facing the same issue and I believed they were a good person who deserved the chance to remain in our country, you can bet I'd be out there letting people know. But there seems to be silence from those who served alongside Perez. 

(U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Christie R. Smith)

Of course there are also Perez's claims that he thought his service had automatically made him a citizen. See that photo above? That's Iowa National Guard Pfc. Fortytwo Chotper, originally from Sudan, celebrating after earning his citizenship last year. 

You might wonder why he, or the 109,000 service members naturalized between 2002 and 2015 (as cited in the CNN article linked above) didn't think the same thing Perez did. It's a valid question. Is it possible that Perez was never made aware that he needed to take specific steps to gain citizenship? Morning Briefing producer Jake Hughes (a former Army Drill Sergeant) doesn't think that's very likely. He says he personally witnessed many non-citizens being briefed about the process at basic training, and again 109,000 others seemed to be fully aware of the requirements.

So we have someone booted from the Army for drugs, convicted of a drug felony, who claims he wasn't told about something that seems to be common knowledge among other immigrants who serve, and the media just takes him at his word. To be fair, it's impossible to prove what he was and wasn't told but this is someone whose track record indicates he's someone who wasn't terribly likely to do what he was supposed to, or told to.

If you're not sure, or don't think so, consider the following: As a legal permanent resident beginning in 1989, Perez was eligible to apply for citizenship beginning in 1994 -- seven years before he joined the Army. He did not. Then his time in the Army gave him an opportunity to speed up the citizenship process. Of course you can't speed up something you never start. 

Then there's the obvious point that as a legal permanent resident, had he not committed a crime he'd still be free to live here. Only now, when facing deportation, does he seem particularly interested in the protections citizenship offers. Of course I haven't heard him say anything about being interested in citizenship, only in staying. His lawyer finally filed for citizenship on his behalf recently. Seems a little late in the game for that, but I'm guessing the fact that he still hadn't applied for citizenship after all of this would have made any chance at him staying even less likely.

I'd personally be all for granting automatic citizenship to any non-citizen who serves, and completes that service honorably. But that's not the way it currently works, and even if it was Perez wouldn't qualify based on his drug-related discharge. 

This is a story about one particular case, and given the evidence, I now believe I have an informed opinion. If only I'd been given the evidence right up front. Instead, I had to dig to find the info due to many authors, and editors, leaving out and/or glossing over key facts. In my eyes, again there are two possible reasons for this. They are either doing so in order to push the narrative that they personally believe is the "right" one or, as i said before, they're lazy. 

Whatever the case may be, it's not good. If it is a case of pushing narratives at the expense of the truth, then I'd ask those authors and editors to consider the following: if you need to leave out important information to create the story you want to tell, it's not a story you should tell. Maybe instead you could write some stories about those 109,000 veterans who earned their citizenship instead of focusing on the veteran status of this outlier, this one who was out selling cocaine when he could have been working towards that same goal.