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The Undocumented Immigrant Next Door
The Undocumented Immigrant Next Door: Support runs deep for Hernandez in West Frankfort

WEST FRANKFORT — It was a hot June Saturday afternoon. A mix of country and pop music filled the outdoor space outside of La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant in West Frankfort throughout the day. Children played ball in the parking lot. A group of young girls showed off their dance and gymnastics moves.

The Undocumented Immigrant Next Door: About this mini-series

Early in 2017, Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco was unexpectedly thrust under an international spotlight when he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and his story made international headlines. This mini-series, "The Undocumented Immigrant Next Door," aims to shed more light on Hernandez’s journey to America, his ongoing legal battle, his family, and the Southern Illinois community that offered its support to his case. The weeklong series kicked off on Dec. 31 with The Southern Illinoisan naming Hernandez as its "Person of the Year." The Southern chose Hernandez because his story puts a familiar face on a complex national debate playing out in our backyard, and illustrates the many ways in which immigration law, and rural America, are as messy as life itself. 

Adults gathered in groups under the awning of a patio seating area. They talked about the weather — it was a scorcher. Some sipped draft beer from plastic cups and alternately grazed the buffet and silent auction lines. 

It was the scene of a typical Southern Illinois fundraiser, one that has played out countless times in numerous venues throughout the region for neighbors in need. One thing Southern Illinoisans are known for, and are in fact proud of, is the ability to get together over food and drink to support a good cause.

But this is probably the only time that such a down-home public fundraiser was thrown in Southern Illinois to support the pending legal case of an undocumented immigrant.

Throughout the course of that day, several hundred people attended the fundraiser for Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco. Hernandez has been living in the country as an unauthorized immigrant for about 20 years.

He was detained on Feb. 9 when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials came knocking on his door to inquire about someone else. He was released 20 days later, after posting bond. But now he faces an uphill legal battle to remain in the country with his family. 

Many of the people who came out that day wore shirts with an American flag on the front, and the words “He is one of us” on the back. One after another, they offered Hernandez a hug or a handshake or a fist bump.

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Many people came out in support of Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco, including his friend Tim Grigsby, standing wearing a hat and a "He is one of us" shirt during a benefit for Carlos and his family that was held Saturday, June 24, 2017, at La Fiesta restaurant in West Frankfort.

As the sun began to disappear over the horizon, Hernandez stole away for a quiet moment at an isolated picnic table. He looked out into his crowd of supporters, most of them white, and said it was overwhelming to see how much love and support the community has extended to him and his family. "I didn't expect this," he said. 

The money raised will be used to help offset legal expenses. His next hearing before an immigration judge in Kansas City, Kansas, is scheduled for April 2021.

Hernandez faces the possibility of deportation, and separation from his wife and three children, all of whom are American citizens, because of the numerous factors complicating his pursuit of legal residency.

Support runs deep 

But there’s nothing complicated about the way many people feel about Hernandez in West Frankfort. By many accounts, he’s a popular businessman and a beloved friend. Tim Grigsby, a close friend and West Frankfort businessman, wrote in a letter to the judge in Hernandez's case that he knows "very few people that give as much" as Hernandez to the community. The fire chief wrote about how Hernandez delivered food to a crew of about 50 firefighters battling a blaze near his restaurant in late 2016. 

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Tim Grigsby, owner of Simple Solutions Printing in West Frankfort, and Carlos Hernandez admire a print Grigsby made of a photo of Grigsby's daughter at her wedding that was held recently. They are shown at Grigsby's print shop Tuesday, April 11, 2017.

Franklin County State’s Attorney Evan Owens wrote to the judge that the Hernandez family "is the example of how people should live." 

“A community has many assets. A community also has many liabilities. It is our job as leaders in a community to try to keep the asset column ahead of the liability column," Owens wrote. "There is no doubt that taking Carlos away from our community would be detrimental to not only his three children, wife, extended family and friends, but would also be taking a valuable asset from our Franklin County community.”

Another individual wrote that he met Hernandez through a mutual friend, who came to learn of the family's fundraiser to purchase an FM amplification system to be used for his hearing aid. Hernandez donated $1,000.

“He sat and visited with us and told us about his life and how he wished that he was able to help everyone that he could possibly help and not want anything in return," Darren Zoller wrote. "That to me is a true Christian hearted person.

Read letters in support of Carlos Hernandez Pacheco

That so many people in this rural, conservative community have gone to great lengths to support an undocumented immigrant made international news, particularly because the county also overwhelmingly supported Republican nominee Donald Trump in the presidential election over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Trump support nuanced for many 

One of Trump’s chief campaign platforms was cracking down on people in the country illegally, and he expressed his policy positions using strong and, at times, what many considered offensive language. The comment Trump made that especially drew a sharp rebuke was from June 2015 as he announced his candidacy. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said in his speech. “…They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re bringing rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

On Feb. 27, the New York Times published a story — “He’s a Local Pillar in a Trump Town. Now He Could Be Deported.” — about Hernandez and the West Frankfort community that rallied behind him. Numerous social media commenters on the viral story called the Trump voters here hypocrites, even though the story noted that there were a variety of explanations offered as to why 70 percent of Franklin County voters preferred him. Chief among the reasons were Trump’s promises to help rural America and revive the coal industry.

Iris Kohzadi, of West Frankfort, who helped organize the fundraiser this summer for Hernandez, said as the story traveled around the world, she thought some of the comments made by readers unfamiliar with the region were unfair to Southern Illinois. Kohzadi said it seemed as if some people were trying to say "Shame on you; you voted Trump and now you’re surprised this has happened," she said. “But it’s not all our fault.”

Kohzadi said she's known Hernandez for about five years. Like many people in West Frankfort, Kohzadi said her family has benefited from Hernandez's generosity.  

Kohzadi said her daughter is a member of the X-Treme dance team from Sloan Dance Studio in West Frankfort that finished first place in their division at the 2016 World Dance Championships. The competition was in Meadowlands, New Jersey, and at the time, Hernandez asked if he could sponsor the team by hosting fundraisers to help offset their travel expenses.  Kohzadi said the team was floored by his offer. Since then, they have come to understand that's just the kind of thing Hernandez does. Over the years, he has held countless fundraisers, benefits and appreciation nights at La Fiesta, and quietly extended assistance to many others. 

Kohzadi said she voted for Trump in November 2016, despite that she had her reservations about his personality, and some of his positions. “I come from a long line of Republicans in my family,” she said. “I just wasn’t sure what I was going to do.”

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Carlos Hernandez poses with organizers of a benefit for him and his family, Nicky Bowers (left) and Iris Kohzadi. The benefit was held Saturday, June 24, 2017, at La Fiesta restaurant in West Frankfort.

Kohzadi said she thought Trump would do a better job improving the economy than Clinton, particularly of forgotten places like West Frankfort. She also was concerned about Clinton’s support for Obama-era environmental regulations she and many others here blame for suffocating the coal industry that was once the economic bedrock of Franklin County.

In West Frankfort, more than 23 percent of residents live below the poverty line, as of 2016 U.S. Census estimates. That’s up from about 19 percent in 2000. The region has been hampered by the constricting of coal jobs for a variety of reasons, including mechanization, the low cost of natural gas and environmental policies encouraging lessened dependence on coal-fired power plants.

Above all, Kohzadi said she chose Trump because he wasn’t Clinton. Kohzadi said she did not feel like Clinton was honest and trustworthy. “For the lack of anything, it was really the better of two evils,” she said.

Kohzadi said her father-in-law, who passed away just days before the November 2016 election, emigrated from Iran to the U.S., and often talked about the need for America to reform its immigration laws because of how hard it is for people to become citizens. “It’s an American dream for all of us, and it’s an American dream for everybody else as well,” she recalled her father-in-law saying.

Kohzadi said despite her father-in-law disagreeing with Trump’s positions on immigration, he also planned to vote for him. “That just made me feel 100 percent assured I was doing the right thing,” she said.

Political talk 

Hernandez said that in the heat of the election season, Trump and Clinton were a regular topic of discussion inside his restaurant, as it was everywhere. Hernandez said he found many of Trump’s comments about undocumented immigrants, and particularly those from Mexico, to be unsettling. But he also said he understood why many of his friends supported Trump, either enthusiastically or as the better of the two options. “A lot of people around here are concerned about the economy, and things like coal mining,” he said.

As the manager of a business, Hernandez said he shares the desires of his neighbors to see the economy of West Frankfort rebound. “What helps this community helps this business,” he said. When people don't have jobs, or they have to take pay cuts, one of the first things they often cut from their budgets is dining out, he noted. 

On presidential politics, Hernandez said he never expresses his opinion as support for one candidate or another because as an undocumented immigrant, he cannot vote, and therefore he does not see it as his place. That said, Hernandez said he celebrated the election of Barack Obama from the vantage point that he found it encouraging that America had elected its first black president. "That was history," he said.

Still, Hernandez said he agreed with many of Obama’s policies, but not all. He also noted Obama's efforts to help unauthorized immigrants with children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents. When Obama was not able to push his immigration reform plans through Congress, he attempted to do so by executive order. The Supreme Court, however, blocked his implementation of an order to temporarily defer deportation of applicable parents. 

There are also policy positions of Trump's that he supports, he said, including where it concerns immigration policy, the need to better secure the border. Hernandez said he respects the office of the president, regardless of who is filling that role. 

Recently, he said, he stumbled upon a quiz trending on Facebook that offered to tell him whether he was a Republican or Democrat. For fun, Hernandez clicked on it and answered the questions. “It said I was a Republican,” he said, noting he believes in strong, conservative family values. Hernandez said his political views are a mixed bag. 

Hernandez was arrested 20 days after Trump assumed the Oval Office. Only time will tell if the outpouring of support from his community will help his case. 

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

A banner in front of La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant in West Frankfort welcomes Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco home from having been in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in a detention facility in Montgomery City, Missouri.

“This letter may not help in any way, but Carlos is in need of help, and if this does help in any way then so be it," wrote Zoller, one of his supporters, while Hernandez was awaiting a bond hearing. "I just can’t sit here and watch a good hearted person and friend be treated this way. I know that he would help our family if we needed help at any time.

“Please free Carlos and let him return home to his family and children where he belongs.” 

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Carlos Hernandez poses with one of his many supporters during a benefit for him and his family Saturday, June 24, 2017, at La Fiesta restaurant in West Frankfort.

The Undocumented Immigrant Next Door: About this mini-series

Early in 2017, Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco was unexpectedly thrust under an international spotlight when he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and his story made international headlines. This mini-series, "The Undocumented Immigrant Next Door," aims to shed more light on Hernandez’s journey to America, his ongoing legal battle, his family, and the Southern Illinois community that offered its support to his case. The weeklong series kicked off on Dec. 31 with The Southern Illinoisan naming Hernandez as its "Person of the Year." The Southern chose Hernandez because his story puts a familiar face on a complex national debate playing out in our backyard, and illustrates the many ways in which immigration law, and rural America, are as messy as life itself. 

Sessions terminates US policy that let legal pot flourish (copy)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration threw the burgeoning movement to legalize marijuana into uncertainty Thursday as it lifted an Obama-era policy that kept federal authorities from cracking down on the pot trade in states where the drug is legal. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will now leave it up to federal prosecutors to decide what to do when state rules collide with federal drug law.

Sessions' action, just three days after a legalization law went into effect in California, threatened the future of the young industry, created confusion in states where the drug is legal and outraged both marijuana advocates and some members of Congress, including Sessions' fellow Republicans. Many conservatives are wary of what they see as federal intrusion in areas they believe must be left to the states.

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who represents Colorado, one of eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, said the change contradicts a pledge Sessions made to him before being confirmed as attorney general. Gardner promised to push legislation to protect marijuana sales, saying he was prepared "to take all steps necessary" to fight the change, including holding up the confirmation of Justice Department nominees. Another Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, called the announcement "disruptive" and "regrettable."

Colorado's U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, said his office won't change its approach to prosecution, despite Sessions' guidance. Prosecutors there always have focused on marijuana crimes that "create the greatest safety threats" and will continue to be guided by that, Troyer said.

The largely hands-off approach to marijuana enforcement set forth by Barack Obama's Justice Department allowed the pot business to flourish into a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar industry that helps fund some state government programs. What happens now is in doubt.

"In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department's finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions," considering the seriousness of a crime and its impact on the community, Sessions told prosecutors in a one-page memo.

While Sessions, a longtime marijuana foe, has been carrying out a Justice Department agenda that follows Trump's top priorities on such issues as immigration and opioids, this change reflects his own concerns. He railed against marijuana as an Alabama senator and has assailed it as comparable to heroin.

Trump, as a candidate, said pot should be left up to the states, but his personal views on marijuana remain largely unknown.

It is not clear how the change might affect states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes. A congressional amendment blocks the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed. Justice officials said they would follow the law, but would not preclude the possibility of medical-marijuana related prosecutions.

Officials wouldn't say whether federal prosecutors would target marijuana shops and legal growers, nor would they speculate on whether pot prosecutions would increase.

They denied the timing was connected to the opening of California sales, which are projected to bring in $1 billion annually in tax revenue within several years. And, the officials said, Thursday's action might not be the only step toward greater marijuana enforcement. The department has the authority to sue states on the grounds that state laws regulating pot are unconstitutional, pre-empted by federal law.

Asked about the change, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said only that Trump's top priority is enforcing federal law "and that is regardless of what the topic is, whether it's marijuana or whether it's immigration."

The Obama administration in 2013 announced it would not stand in the way of states that legalize marijuana, so long as officials acted to keep it from migrating to places where it remained outlawed and keep it out of the hands of criminal gangs and children. That memo, written by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, had cleared up some of the uncertainty about how the federal government would respond as states began allowing sales for recreational and medical purposes.

But the Sessions Justice Department believed the Cole memo created a "safe harbor" for marijuana by allowing states to flout federal law, Justice Department officials said. Sessions, in his memo, called the Obama guidance "unnecessary."

He and some law enforcement officials in states such as Colorado blame legalization for a number of problems, including drug traffickers who have taken advantage to illegally grow and ship the drug across state lines, where it can sell for much more.

Marijuana advocates argue those concerns are overblown and contend legalizing the drug reduces crime by eliminating the need for a black market. They quickly condemned Sessions' move as a return to outdated drug-war policies that unduly affected minorities.

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Marion Sears; West Frankfort, Mount Vernon Kmart stores to close

The Marion Sears and West Frankfort and Mount Vernon Kmart stores will close in 2018.

Sears Holdings announced Thursday it plans to close 64 Kmart stores and 39 Sears stores nationwide because the locations are not profitable.

The West Frankfort and Mount Vernon Kmart stores are set to close in early April. The Marion Sears is also set to close in early April.

According to a news release from Sears Holdings, the parent company of both stores, liquidation sales will start as early as Jan. 12. The release also states that employees impacted by the store closures will receive severance and will have the opportunity to apply for open positions at the Sears and Kmart stores that will remain open.

— The Southern

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Daniel Booth hired as Carbondale Elementary School District 95 superintendent

A familiar face will lead the charge for Carbondale Elementary School District No. 95.

Carbondale Community High School Principal Daniel Booth was hired by the school board Thursday to a five-year contract with a salary of $150,816. His tenure as superintendent will begin July 1.

Booth came to Carbondale to attend Southern Illinois University in 2002. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in 2006 in health education and in 2010 received a master’s degree in education administration.

He was hired by CCHS in 2006 as a health and driver’s education instructor. He was promoted to dean of students in 2009 and became assistant principal in 2010. In 2011, he was promoted to principal.

Booth said Carbondale is his home and he is excited “to hit the ground running” in the new district.

“I was eager to talk to the board about my vision what this district can be with great leadership,” he said. “We were on the same page and here we are today.”

He said this is an opportunity for Carbondale to begin succeeding, starting with its youngest minds.

“I’m most excited about what the future holds for Carbondale,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for Carbondale to reach its full potential at the elementary level.

“This could be a model district in the state of Illinois. We will exceed expectations. It will take time and hard work, but we are not running away from hard work.”

Booth takes over the superintendent job from interim superintendent Elizabeth Lewin, who has been in charge since May when former superintendent Michael Shimshak retired.

Booth wasn’t the only person happy to see the district make this move, as School Board Chairman John Major said District 95 is trending in the right direction with new hire.

“I think our district has made the turnaround already tonight,” he said.

The teachers in the audience on Thursday were also pleased with the hire, as several times throughout the meeting, there were pauses for applause.

Sharonda Marshall, third grade teacher at Thomas School, said Booth is exactly with the district needs.

“He is a person who is going to come in and change the culture of our district,” she said. “He came in and talked to the Carbondale Education Association, and you saw nothing but smiles and happiness all around.”

Booth addressed the teachers during the meeting, saying he looks forward to helping them feel special and important.

“Because this district will not be anything without you guys and I appreciate what you do every day,” he said.

The only negative comments came from two board members Carlton Smith and Gary Shepherd, who both said it was concerning the board only saw the contract from the first time Thursday night, and didn’t get to participate in what terms went into the contract.

However, both members also said their concerns did not reflect their feelings toward Booth’s qualifications for the job.

CES 95 is home to Parish Elementary, Thomas Elementary, Lewis Elementary and Carbondale Middle Schools.