Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has denied clemency to a former U.S. Army soldier and green card holder with a felony drug conviction, increasing the likelihood that the Afghanistan War veteran will soon be deported to his native Mexico.  

Rauner’s decision to turn down the clemency request for Miguel Perez Jr., a father of two who left Mexico when he was 8 years old and grew up in Chicago, was delivered by mail to his family on Feb. 7. The denial may be the final straw for advocates of immigration reform who’ve waged a protracted battle to keep Perez in the country. His supporters had hoped a pardon from Rauner would increase the likelihood of Perez being granted citizenship, retroactive to the date he enlisted.   

As the Chicago Tribune notes, the retroactive pathway to citizenship is Perez’s last hope for avoiding deportation. In January, a three-judge panel for the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a request for relief under the United Nations Convention against Torture, which Perez’s lawyers invoked on the grounds that there’s a plausible chance he’ll be targeted by drug cartels for recruitment if he’s sent back to Mexico.

Deportees born in Mexico are usually delivered by bus to a border town, where cartels operate heavily. Virtually all of the deported veterans Task & Purpose spoke with during a trip to Juarez, Mexico, last spring said they had been approached for recruitment. People in desperate situations make for ideal recruits.

“When I was in prison, I was already getting offers, people who would say to me that if I was deported [the cartels] would send word back and all would be OK,” Perez told CNN on Feb. 5. “They would offer me the opportunity to make a lot of money and a lot of other things, but that was just a way to say, ‘You belong to us when you get back here.’”

“It’s not what I think would happen to me. It’s what I know,” Perez told a judge last year. “It’s not like I can…fit in and blend in. It just doesn’t work that way. How long can I hide the fact I’ve been deported and I was in the military?”

On Nov. 26, 2008, Perez handed a laptop case containing more than two pounds of cocaine to an undercover law enforcement officer in Chicago. He pleaded guilty to the drug charge and is currently being held in an immigration detention center in Wisconsin, where he was taken last year after serving half of a 15-year prison sentence. Like many veterans who have been deported or are facing deportation, Perez says he thought he had automatically become a U.S. citizen when he enlisted in the Army in 2001.

Perez’s high-profile case has helped focus media attention on the plight of hundreds, possibly thousands, of U.S. military veterans who have been deported in recent decades. (The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for tracking deportations, does not know the exact number.)

Advocates for veterans like Perez argue that the current immigration system is so inflexible that it flushes out even those immigrants who have made tremendous sacrifices for the U.S. while in serving in uniform. Few deported veterans seem to have Perez’s downrange experience. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and screened for possible traumatic brain injury after separating from the Army. That, his supporters argue, is evidence of a link between the two tours he served in Afghanistan and his subsequent criminal behavior.

According to his supporters, Perez returned to Chicago following his separation from the Army and soon reconnected with a childhood friend, who supplied him with free drugs and alcohol. Research has shown that sufferers of PTSD are more prone to substance abuse.   

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement insists that it does take military service into account when determining whether an immigrant should be deported, however. ICE “respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service,” an agency spokesman said in a statement to Task & Purpose last year, adding that deportation orders in such cases are “authorized by the senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel.”