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The SIU softball team celebrates their 4-3 win over Northern Iowa in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference softball tournament on May 13, 2017 at Illinois State University's Marian Kneer Stadium in Normal. 

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The Undocumented Immigrant Next Door
The Undocumented Immigrant Next Door: He came to America to buy his dying sister medicine, shoes

WEST FRANKFORT — Twenty years ago, Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco set out to cross the U.S.-Mexican border. It wasn’t something he always wanted to do. As a young boy, he didn’t dream of making his way to the land of opportunity and raising children with his beautiful wife in a little house on a humble corner plot of rural America across from the business he manages.

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. 

He couldn’t imagine, back then, a time when he would do anything not to leave here. Certainly, he never dreamed he would become the face of America’s immigration debate in the era of President Donald Trump. Those things would not come to be for many years.

Hernandez said he came to America for one reason. He wanted to be able to buy his terminally ill sister medicine and medical care, new shoes, trips to a few places she had never been, perhaps a couple of McDonald's Happy Meals and whatever else he could afford to make her short life a little more meaningful and comfortable.

As a teenager, he became the de facto head of his family’s one-room home in Leon, the fourth largest city in Mexico. His father was around but didn’t work, Hernandez said. He was physically and mentally abusive and expressed pretty well the entire range of human emotions the same: in anger.

Hernandez, the oldest boy, behind a sister in sibling order, said he took the brunt of the physical abuse “because I was the man of the house and I would protect my brothers and sisters.”

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Carlos Hernandez talks about his case pending before an immigration judge and recounts how he came to West Frankfort.

When his older sister was 17, Hernandez said she was diagnosed with hepatitis. Doctors did not know how she came to contract this disease that attacks the liver, but by the time it was discovered, it had significantly progressed, leading to other complications, and there was little that could be done, according to Hernandez.

Hernandez was two years her junior. As he neared adulthood, Hernandez said his sister’s condition had grown more severe. The family was told she might only live a few more years, or would perhaps die in just months without medical treatment, which the family could not afford. 

His family lived in the Mexican state of Guanajuato in the type of poverty that most Americans would find difficult to comprehend, he said. Everyone slept in the same room. There was running water most of the time, though not always. Hernandez said he entered the workforce at age six. As a child, he hustled for change by picking up trash and helping people carry items home from the market. In middle school, he worked as a janitor in a nearby factory. As a teenager, he shaped leather around a molded foot form, he said, in a shoe factory that was a subcontractor for Nike, making shoes he could not afford to wear.

Post high school, Hernandez said he was certified in computer programming and accounting, but decent, white-collar jobs are scarce unless one is politically connected.

Despite long hours of factory work, Hernandez said he and his mom could not bring in enough money for his sister’s growing medical needs, and to care for the other children in the house.

“When I heard mom was going to sell the house to pay for medical assistance I just said, ‘I’ve got to go.’”

Go to America, that is.

Crossing the border — attempt No. 1

“I didn’t grow up thinking, ‘I’ve got to go there. This is the place to be,’” Hernandez said. When he made the decision to go, Hernandez said he surmised he would be able to earn the equivalent of a week’s wages in Mexico in only one day of working in America, even if he was paid minimum wage or a little less. That meant in a few weeks’ time, he could amass the equivalent of a year’s salary in Mexico. After a year or so, he figured he would return to his home country and family.

One question often posed when the discussion turns to immigrants who enter or stay in the country illegally is why don't they get in line and move to America legally? According to the American Immigration Council, which answers this question in an August 2016 post, there is no line for most unauthorized immigrants. "Immigration to the United States on a temporary or permanent basis is generally limited to three different routes: employment, family reunification, or humanitarian protection," the organization explains. Those options didn't apply to Hernandez, and even if they did, the process can take years. For his particular mission, time was not on his side. So like hundreds of thousands before and after him, Hernandez set out to cross the border in secret.  

The first time he tried to cross, Hernandez was only 18 years old. He said that he and a younger cousin saved enough money for a flight from Leon to Tijuana, which is near San Diego. Hernandez said the two could not afford a “coyote” — the term used to describe a person skilled at smuggling people across the border in exchange for money, thousands of dollars in most cases.

“I got caught three or four times,” he said. “It was a catch-and-release deal.”

He said the two slept on the streets for three or four months as they planned each attempt. They eventually gave up and decided to spend their remaining dollars they’d earned doing odd jobs on a 40-hour bus ride home.

Back in Leon, as the months ticked by, Hernandez’s sister grew sicker. At the same time, his resolve to cross the border grew stronger. He’d also grown wiser, having thought about the ways he and his cousin went wrong in their previous attempt. He set out again to Tijuana, this time with a friend.

“I was so determined to get through it,” he said of crossing the border.

“I wasn’t going to go back again,” he added. “I wasn’t going to go back home and say, ‘I didn’t make it.” Hernandez said he told himself, “This is it. Let’s do it.”

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Carlos Hernandez takes a call on his phone at home in Frankfort, Tuesday, April 9, 2017.

Determined to make it

This time, Hernandez said he and his friend were more strategic in their approach. They also were more patient. For hours, he said, the two sat up on a hillside looking across the landscape into America. They could see California, though it was heavily guarded. “You can see border security, patrols, helicopters,” he said. “There’s a huge fence there … I was just sitting there watching people walk through it when border security or patrol did their rounds. We timed everything. We just watched them for hours and studied them and figured out the way to go.”

After several days of planning, they decided to take their chance. “It was late at night and it was foggy,” he said. “I remember that.” From the hilltop, they had spotted a storm drain. Their plan was to sneak through it. That night, they managed to crawl underground on their hands in knees in muddy water for roughly a quarter mile. “It seemed like forever,” he said, of their time in the storm drain. “It was dark and wet and muddy.”

On the other side of the storm drain, they wandered around lost for a bit, walking in circles because they didn’t have a compass. But it wasn’t long before they found themselves in San Ysidro, a district city of San Diego, about 40 miles to the city center, with a population equal to roughly that of Carbondale’s.

In San Ysidro, they stumbled upon a little burrito place, he said, where an employee knew exactly what the two were up to and told them to clean up — immediately — as border patrol was hot and heavy in the community and they looked like two people who had just jumped the border. “He seen us wandering around,” Hernandez said. “He knew what was going on with us. … He gave us some food, let us clean up ourselves and told us what to do.”

The man gave the two directions on where to catch the trolley and told them to do it quickly before border patrol stopped by checking the place for border jumpers.

Hernandez said they made their way by trolley into downtown San Diego. They spoke very little English and had only a few dollars in their pockets. The next day, they spent what they had left on two sandwiches. Newly arrived in San Diego, Hernandez recalled walking by two homeless men on the street, who asked them for their food. “I had no idea what was going on,” he said. “They were talking in English and I didn’t understand,” Hernandez said he bent down to offer them part of his meal, but they took it all. His friend was not happy, as they had not eaten for hours, since their last quick meal in San Ysidro, and not much for days.

A network of guardian angels

Though they had successfully crossed the border, they were a long ways from the American dream. Hernandez said he had his doubts at times about the decision he’d made. This was one of them. “We were hungry,” he said. “I just offered my food to somebody else. Right when that happened, probably five minutes after that, police, immigration patrols, were going around downtown.” A taxi driver fluent in Spanish told the two to get in his cab. He is among the guardian angels that Hernandez said he met on his long trip from Leon to Marion that transpired over the course of months.

After eating, Hernandez said the taxi driver took the two to a “safe house.” He described it as a house “where the coyotes bring their chickens” — as in a room where the human smugglers kept the people they had helped cross the border until they received their payment. Though Hernandez said it was called a “safe house” he said it was far from a place where anyone would want to be.

In the house, there was one big room filled with 30 to 40 undocumented immigrants, almost exclusively Latinos. “Nobody was allowed to go to the bathroom without asking,” he said. “It was basically your urban kidnapping and it felt like that.”

Most of the people in the home were waiting for their payment to arrive so that the coyotes would set them free. But since the two did not use the assistance of a professional human smuggler to sneak across the border, they were not under as strict of guidelines inside the house, he said. At the time, they surmised, it was better than sleeping on the street or getting caught by immigration enforcement officers. They stayed in the house for several days. Hernandez recalled that twice a day, someone would come into the room and throw a few pans down on the floor filled with rice and scrambled eggs and tortillas. They hovered around the bowls like cats, eating with their hands.

“What was funny though was they had cats in the place and the cats were eating good food,” he said. “But the cats were owned by an American lady.”

Hernandez said that he would not be able to find that house today if he went looking for it. He wasn’t entirely sure where they were, except he said it was still in San Diego but in a more remote part away from the congested downtown area.

Hernandez said they were finally told they had to leave. The problem is that the people running the house wanted $150 each to get them to another location. Hernandez’s travel companion called in a favor. A friend of a cousin’s wife’s friend paid their fee.

Hernandez recalled the day they were preparing to leave the “safe house” in San Diego and move to Los Angeles. A Grand Marquis pulled up in front of the house. Hernandez said he felt that things were looking up. It was a nice, beautiful car and “they tell us we’re going to ride in it.” Hernandez said he was looking forward to getting out of the packed house and enjoying a few hours riding in the back seat, looking out the window at the American landscape he was longing to see. But the ride was not what they thought it would be. They did not get to enjoy the view. The back seats were removed in the car, and 20 people piled on top of one another, he said.

That friend of a cousin’s wife’s friend who had come to their rescue picked them up at a 7-Eleven gas station and then drove them to his little house on the beach. And from there, things really did start to look up a little bit, he said. The man had a garage behind his house that he had turned into an apartment, he said. It had a pull-out couch, a shower and television. The two stayed there for about three weeks. “He helped us through this process. He didn’t even know who we were,” Hernandez said. He was an American citizen but was bilingual and of Mexican descent, he said. In short order, they all became friends.

During that time, Hernandez said the man bought them clean clothes and they helped him around his house with chores. Mostly, he said, they caught their breath for the first time since crossing from Mexico to America through a storm drain. “I ordered my first McDonald’s in the United States. That’s for sure,” Hernandez said.

“The thing I remember saying was, ‘Give me a No. 4’ because that was the best thing I could say,” he recalled. Hernandez said he took some English classes in high school in Mexico and retained in his memory a few words, such as how to say “door” “kitchen” “window” and “car.” But he didn’t know how to string English words together into a sentence, and couldn’t keep up conversationally. The man from Los Angeles who took them in gave Hernandez some important information that he took to heart. Hernandez said the man told him he would have to learn English to make it in America, and he taught him how to do that on his own.

“Watch movies, listen to music, read the newspaper, read magazines, anything — even if you don’t understand — eventually you will understand,” he recalled the man telling them. “You just have to keep at it. Mainly the movies, watch movies.”

That’s how he learned English. Hernandez said it was incredibly frustrating and took years. Though he has a fairly robust English vocabulary today, he says his English is still a work in progress and he’s not afraid to ask what something means if he doesn’t understand. “That’s exactly the thing,” he tells Latino friends of his in America struggling to learn English. “You need to get frustrated. You want it? You have to do it.”

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco is shown at La Fiesta restaurant in West Frankfort on Sunday, April 30.

Hernandez said that through the challenges, he viewed learning English not as something that was an option, but a matter of survival. The entire time, Hernandez said he kept his sister in the back of his mind. 

He loved his sister, the late Maria de Jesus, that much. Even though he described her as hard-headed, even a bit mean and selfish, Hernandez said she looked after him when he was little, and as the man of the house, he felt a sense of duty to "spoil" her a little bit in her dying days.

Hernandez said he spent nearly all of his free time in Los Angeles watching movies, trying to pick up as much English as possible. Then it was time to move on.

$5, ketchup and a bus fare

Through connections of the man with whom they were staying, they were told of a place that needed workers in Illinois. “They said Illinois and we thought, ‘Oh, Chicago.” They said, ‘No, Southern Illinois.’” Hernandez had never heard of “Southern Illinois,” but he figured he was so far away from home already, that a few hours from the city center would not make much difference.

He had heard of Chicago and assumed it would be similar — a large and diverse place with plenty of people around who spoke Spanish. The two arrived in Chicago on July 4, 1998 — Independence Day. “But I didn’t know it was the 4th of July yet,” Hernandez said. “Well, I knew it was the 4th of July but I didn’t know what it meant.”

“Now I know it’s a very important holiday for Americans, even for myself.”

Hernandez said the two flew into Chicago and then took a taxi to the bus station. After setting aside money for their bus fares, they had about $5 left between them and bought two cheeseburgers at a fast food restaurant. That was the last of their money until they got paid. Hernandez, knowing there was a long journey in front of him, stuck several ketchup packets in his pocket to eat on the way to Marion.

The Greyhound bus they were riding on left Chicago around midnight. They slept most of the way, and arrived early the next morning in Marion, where they were told a job was waiting for them at a Mexican restaurant that had opened just months prior.

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco enters the La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant in West Frankfort on Tuesday, April 11. Pacheco has managed the restaurant for about a decade. In his role as manager, Pacheco has hosted benefits at the restaurant for people facing financial hardship and illness, as well as fundraisers for Redbirds' sports teams tied to the Frankfort school district and other community causes. In October, he hosted a Blue Lives Matter appreciation night for West Frankfort and Franklin County law enforcement and other first responders.

Waking up in Marion, which was considerably less developed 20 years ago than it is today, Hernandez said he was in shock. “I was expecting to see tumbleweeds,” he said with a laugh. “It felt like the Wild, Wild West.”

Doubt crept in again, as it did on occasion.

“I’m thinking, ‘Where am I and what am I doing here,'” he recalled of his feelings stepping off the bus in what was to become his new home.

But there was really no turning back at this point. They were hungry. They had no money. They were expected to show up for work. Hernandez said the two set out walking down Main Street in search of La Fiesta. 

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco is shown at La Fiesta restaurant in West Frankfort on Sunday, April 30.

Shawnee Community College president to speak at 'Hidden Figures' MLK Breakfast

CARBONDALE — Borrowing from the movie "Hidden Figures," the Carbondale Chapter of the NAACP is celebrating local women who have made a difference in equal rights in Southern Illinois.

The group's annual breakfast will be Monday, Jan. 15, at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale Student Center Ballroom. Breakfast starts at 8 a.m., with the program beginning at 9 a.m.

This year's guest speaker will be Peggy Bradford, president of Shawnee Community College in Ullin.

Tickets to the breakfast are $5 and can be purchased at the door.

Bradford is a native of Southern Illinois who attended Shawnee Community College, where she earned her Associate of Arts degree.

She received her Bachelor of Science degree from SIUC studying Counseling Administration. Bradford moved on to the University of Iowa, where she earned her Master of Science in Administration and Community Development before earning a law degree.

She went on to earn her doctorate in education from Northern Illinois University.

Other Martin Luther King Jr. Day events are:

• "Sisters of Selma" film about St. Louis nuns who joined civil rights protest in Selma, Alabama, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 30, Newman Center, 715 S. Washington St., Carbondale. The showing of this film will be followed by comments by Father Joseph Brown, a professor of Africana Studies at SIUC, who has described Sister Antona Ebo as an important mentor of his since he became a priest. Sister Ebo died Nov. 11 at the age of 93.

• 19th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration, 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018, at the Carbondale Civic Center.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Alexis Miner (left) leads the Pledge of Allegiance as Taniyah Truitt hold the flag during the 35th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast at the SIU Student Center Ballroom on Jan. 16, 2017 in Carbondale.

New Illinois laws to know for 2018

While wrangling over a state budget hogged the spotlight for much of 2017 in the General Assembly, state lawmakers still found time to pass more than 200 new laws that take effect in 2018 and touch nearly every corner of residents' lives.

Some attracted media attention at the time of their passage, such as the law designating Aug. 4 as "Barack Obama Day," or House Bill 40, a measure under which the state will pay for abortions for Medicaid recipients and women covered by state employee health insurance.

Other measures flew under the radar, but affect everything from who gets Fido in the divorce to how police officers are educated about mental illness. Here are five of them: 

In divorce, treating pets as children

Senate Bill 1261, or Public Act 100-0422, calls for courts to treat animals the same way that children are treated in divorce cases. Before pets were considered as property, like furniture, but now it will be up to the court to determine who will be the best person to have custody of the pet.

"The court is to consider the well-being of the companion animal," said Nrupa Patel, partner at Bolen Robinson & Ellis in Decatur. "What that means, no one really knows." 


Kennedy Clark, 2, pets the tail of a cat that is up for adoption while visiting animals at the Macon County Animal Control and Care Center on Wednesday. Pets in Illinois will receive the similar treatment as children in divorce cases under a new law that takes effect Jan. 1. 

Alaska became the first state last year to enact a similar provision in its divorce laws. 

Patel said it is likely the court will now have to determine factors such as who takes the dog for a walk, who buys the pet food and other parts of normal care when determining who will keep the animal. 

The law could create some interesting situations for courts in the future. Patel said she would not be surprised to see instances in which judges award joint ownership of the animal, set visitation rights and determine who will cover certain costs of pet care.

The law would not apply to service animals. Patel said she did not think it would apply to animals purchased before the couple got together.

Government consolidation

Senate Bill 3, or Public Act 100-0107will allow township boards to hold referendums for voters, which will ask them whether they want to dissolve their townships. It also allows townships to follow a similar process to abolish road districts with less than 15 miles of road.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has long pushed for consolidating more units of local government. The measure was also praised by the conservative Illinois Policy Institute, which has argued the state has too many taxing bodies.

But the way Township Officials of Illinois Executive Bryan Smith sees it, townships already have the ability to consolidate with neighboring townships.

"I've told folks that for years, there are some cases where it just makes sense for a township to consolidate," Smith said. He pointed specifically to a case in Macon County when voters approved the consolidation of the Milam Township with the Mount Zion Township in 2008.

Smith said he did not perceive the law as an attack or effort to eliminate townships across the state.

Mental health training for law enforcement

House Bill 375 or Public Act 100-0247 requires law enforcement officers to take a course on mental health issues to learn signs, symptoms, common treatments and medications for various illnesses. Courses, which could be available in an electronic format, will also cover possible interactions between officers and individuals with mental health issues, their families and their service providers.

Decatur Police Chief Jim Getz estimated that half his officers have already had "crisis intervention training" and he supports the new law mandating the education for all officers.

“We always have money in our training budget, and we’ll adjust it to achieve what we have to get done,” Getz said.

He said the biggest obstacle with having to pull officers off the streets and into the classroom is covering those gaps, but he said this training is worth the time and effort.

“I attended CIT Class several years ago and, I’m telling you, it’s some of the best training ever to deal with people in a non-forceful way. It just gives you more options, it’s really good training,” he added.

Getz said cutbacks in mental health treatment budgets and a shortage of facilities means people with mental illness find themselves on the streets where police have to cope with them. “And we are seeing more and more of these issues,” he added.

Know what you're paying for

Senate Bill 298, or Public Act 100-0207, requires hair stylists, barbers, dry cleaners and people who alter clothing to provide price lists for services upon request. The bill's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake, said it was meant to expose gender-based discrimination.

“Women have been unfairly charged more than men for the same services for far too long,” Bush said earlier this year. “Transparent pricing among service providers will help women know whether they are getting a fair deal for services.”


Student barber Amos Berryman gives Aiden Stoutenborgouh, 7, a haircut at Lockhart's Barber College in this September 2016 file photo. Under a new state law, barbers are among the businesses that must provide a price list for services to customers upon request. 

The law does specify that it is not an unfair business practice to charge different prices based on time, difficulty and market conditions. 

Kalle Ryan, owner of Studio 7 Salon & Day Spa in Decatur, said she had not heard of the new law, but there's a good reason why men are often charged less than women for haircuts.  

"Men can take 15 minutes and women can take up to an hour (to cut)," she said. "We want to get paid by the hour just like everyone else, you know." 

The salon has seven stylists and two nail techs, she said, and they all charge different prices. To comply with the law, each one would have to provide her own price list, she said.  

Corn as the state grain

House Bill 470, or Public Act 100-0109, makes corn the official state grain of Illinois. It joins state symbols that include the state dance (square dancing, since 1990), state snack food (popcorn, since 2003), state fruit (the GoldRush apple, since 2007) and the state pie (pumpkin, since 2015). Dennis School students successfully pushed for the designation of the monarch butterfly as the state insect in 1975. 

With Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Tate & Lyle operations in Decatur, corn has been a lifeblood of the city's economy for generations, and its state designation might be stating the obvious to anyone driving the highways of Central Illinois. Agricultural commodities generate more than $19 billion annually for Illinois, and corn accounts for 54 percent of that total, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. 


Central Illinois farmers deposit harvested corn on the ground outside a full grain elevator in Virginia, Ill., in this September 2015 file photo. In 2018, corn will become the official grain of Illinois when a new law goes into effect.

Field corn, as distinguished from sweet corn that people purchase for eating, finds its way into livestock feed, ethanol, cereal, corn starch and corn syrup among its many uses that contribute to the state's economy. 

"Corn is by far the largest grain produced in the state of Illinois and No. 2 in the U.S. I view it as a recognition for corn," said Rodney Weinzierl, executive director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, based in Bloomington. "Agriculture is a very large sector of the overall economy (in Illinois)."

Field corn is different than sweet corn, which was already recognized when lawmakers made sweet corn the state vegetable in 2015 after a push from Chatham elementary students.

Not everyone is keen on the idea of so many state symbols. Earlier this year, Republican Sen. Tom Rooney of Rolling Meadows proposed a bill that would eliminate all but a few of them, saying the quantity of state symbols has decreased the value of the "important" ones. Rooney's bill, which was stalled in a legislative committee, would only keep the state flag, seal, motto and song.

Other laws

A fresh set of 215 laws takes effect Jan. 1. The laws cover numerous topics, including the expansion of taxpayer-funded abortions, celebrating Barack Obama's presidency, allowing tax credits for private school scholarships, criminal justice reforms and a circus-related ban. Parts of existing laws also kick into motion Monday.

Here's a closer look:


Illinois will allow state health insurance and Medicaid coverage for abortions under a new law that also makes sure abortions remain legal. The law removes language in state law that could criminalize abortion if a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing the procedure is overturned.

However, the move was controversial. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner surprised many when he reversed course and signed the legislation. Over a dozen groups and lawmakers filed a lawsuit challenging the law and its effective date, which a judge dismissed. The groups plan to appeal.

Also, high schools will have to make free feminine hygiene products available in bathrooms of school buildings and pick up the tab.

Illinois has also taken steps to address the opioid epidemic, requiring those who prescribe medicines to register with a database that records patient prescription history.


Tucked into Illinois' historic overhaul of a decades-old school funding formula is a provision that takes effect in the new year: a $75 million tax credit for people and companies donating to private school scholarships. The program allows a credit worth 75 percent of a donation, up to $1 million.

Proponents argue it'll provide scholarships for 6,000 to 10,000 lower-income students to attend private schools and give parents choices. But opponents, including teachers' unions, say it encourages attendance of private schools, where teachers and other staff typically aren't unionized.

While efforts to approve such scholarship programs are difficult, nearly 20 states have them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most are Republican-led.

Voter registration

Illinois joined about a dozen other states when it legalized automatic voter registration over the summer. The move followed an unsuccessful attempt in 2016, which Rauner vetoed over concerns of voter fraud.

State officials are working to complete a major update of voter files and registrations through the Secretary of State's office. Most changes will take effect ahead of the November election. Other agencies will be on board with the changes by July 2019.

LGBTQ rights

Three new Illinois laws will affect LGBTQ rights. One makes Illinois the second state after California to outlaw the so-called "gay panic" defense in criminal proceedings, which is allowing the use of a victim's sexual orientation as a justification for a violent crime. Advocates say the tactic is dated, but still used.

Illinois also revised its requirements for birth certificate changes, allowing Illinois residents to update the gender on their birth certificate with a care provider authorizing they've gone through medically appropriate treatment. The law had previously required proof of surgical operation.

Also, when applicants apply for appointments to state board and commissions, they'll have the option to disclose sexual orientation, which advocates say helps track diversity.

Obama Day

Illinois will commemorate the birthday of former President Barack Obama under a new law. The plan sets aside Aug. 4 to honor the 44th president, but it's not an official state holiday. The law highlights Obama's efforts to protect Americans' rights and build "bridges across communities."

Obama began his political career in the Illinois Senate in 1997. He served there until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004. The law came after lawmakers narrowly rejected a plan to make Obama's birthday a state holiday amid concerns of giving state employees another paid day off.

Criminal justice

A law that will automatically expunge juvenile criminal records two years after a case is close takes effect. Exclusions apply, including cases involving homicides, felony sex offenses and other serious crimes. Advocates say the move allows young people to recover from past mistakes.

Repeat firearm offenders will also be subject to sentencing at a higher range.

New laws will also expand the state's cyberstalking laws by outlawing electronic harassment of a person using spyware or tracking software to threaten harm or restrain.

Elephant ban

Illinois will prohibit the use of elephants in circuses and other traveling exhibits. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals billed Illinois as the first state to do so.

Backers say African and Asian elephants are endangered species and such exhibits don't always properly care for the animals. The measure doesn't apply to zoos or other permanent institutions.

The practice of using live elephants has been going out of style amid outcry from animal rights groups. In 2016, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus retired its elephants to a conservatory in Florida.

Tony Reid, Tom Lisi, John Reidy and AP's Sophie Tareen contributed to this story. 

Massive, maligned Medicaid managed care expansion to start

SPRINGFIELD — A vast remaking of subsidized Medicaid health care in Illinois, nearly a year in the making and criticized all the way, rolled out Jan. 1.

Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration will add 800,000 low-income and disabled residents to a managed care program aimed at improving efficiency, keeping people healthier and saving money.

But critics have raised sharp questions, from the manner in which the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services sought and signed up insurers to whether the reimbursement rates those providers accepted are high enough to keep them viable.

Four in five of the nation's 70 million Medicaid clients are on managed care. The idea is that by assigning patients to doctors and resources that help them focus on illness prevention, they'll stay healthier and more readily avoid costly emergency treatment when they do get it.

Monday's expansion, called HealthChoice Illinois, will ultimately bring to 2.7 million the number of Illinois Medicaid recipients in managed care, or about 80 percent. Those in counties that already have managed care will join the new program Monday. The rest will follow on April 1.

The four-year deal, with an option to continue for four more, will cost $60 billion for seven insurers to participate. That's an increase of 50 percent over the current program. But Healthcare and Family Services say overall, taxpayers will save $250 million a year because the insurers under contract accepted reduced reimbursement rates in order to get a piece of the project.

Those rates are the latest worry for legislative Democrats who have been closely scrutinizing the HFS plan since it was announced late last winter.

Rep. Greg Harris of Chicago, the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee chairman, who has conducted hearings on the way the contract was awarded and the necessity of smaller, tangential contracts, has turned his attention to the program's viability.

Harris points a warning finger to Iowa, where he contends the Medicaid managed care program is collapsing because one of three insurers pulled out Dec. 1, leaving more than 200,000 clients without an insurer and forcing a limitation on patient choice. AmeriHealth Caritas was in a prickly position because its clientele ended up being the state's most seriously disabled. They tend to have more costly care.

But the other companies have complained about costs, too. By late December, a second insurer was refuting the rumor, mentioned by a Democratic lawmaker, that it, too, would exit the program.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in October that Medicaid spending grew by 4 percent in the year that ended June 30 and that state administrators project it to grow by another 5 percent this year. Kaiser says growth is fueled largely by rising costs of prescription drugs — something Harris and other Illinois Democrats have noted — and long-term care services.

Another, ironically, increases in payment rates for provider groups.

The Illinois plan selected seven providers to deliver services in all 102 of the Prairie State's counties. The former program operated in only 30 counties and did not cover residents in many rural areas. In Cook County, clients will choose from NextLevelHealth or CountyCare Health Plan. Outside of the metropolitan area, choices are BlueCross BlueShield, Harmony, Illinicare Health, MeridianHealth or Molina Healthcare.

HFS officials say everyone eligible is receiving "clear and detailed information to help them understand their options and make their choices."

Provided by Shawnee Community College