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Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco's wife, Elizabeth Hernandez, looks through mail before handing the letters to him at the La Fiesta restaurant in West Frankfort April 11, 2017. Until recently, she was a waitress at the restaurant that he manages and the couple met. She is presently working at La Fiesta's Benton location. 

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The Undocumented Immigrant Next Door: Nike shoes, jeans and a first taste of the American dream

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. 

WEST FRANKFORT — It was the summer of 1998 when Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco arrived in Marion. He had turned 20 years old only months prior when the Greyhound bus he took from Chicago dropped him off in Southern Illinois.

Arriving here, several months after he and a friend made their way across the U.S.-Mexican border in secret, Hernandez was shocked to find out how little Marion resembled Chicago, and just how few people spoke Spanish. Having grown up in city with more than 1.2 million people, Hernandez said that Marion, which had a population of about 16,000 people at the time, seemed like not only another country, but also another world.  

But they were out of money and out of food, and a job was waiting for them. So Marion it would be, he recalled thinking. Walking on foot, guided only by the vague directions given to them, the two eventually discovered La Fiesta on Carbon Street. At the time, La Fiesta had only been open for about seven months. 

Richard Sitler / 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.

The manager gave them a meal and then put Hernandez’s friend to work in the back. He put Hernandez to work in the front of the house, busing tables. "We just fit right in," he said. 

Hernandez said he will never forget the feeling he had when he received his first paycheck in America. It was minimum wage pay, but Hernandez said he had never had that much money at once in his life.

As he promised to do, Hernandez sent some of that first paycheck, and most of future ones, back to his mom, who was caring for his older sister who was in poor health. That was the main reason for this journey. But there was something he wanted to do for himself first.

At the time, he was staying with his travel companion in the apartment complex that sits behind Rural King in Marion. He walked from there to the Marion mall. He had two things in mind he wanted to buy: Nike shoes and jeans.

“I always wanted to have Nike shoes,” he said. Hernandez said he worked as a young teenager in a factory that was a subcontractor for Nike, but could never afford to buy a pair in Mexico. 

Between dealing with the uncertainty of the decision he had made at such a young age — he turned 20 his first year in the U.S. — and the loneliness that sunk in being so far away from his family, Hernandez said that buying those shoes filled him with a sense of strength that he had made it this far, and confidence that he could keep going.

In the proceeding months, Hernandez said he spent most of his time at work. He paid the rent, sent the majority of his earnings back home, and set aside a little of each paycheck for his own savings. He spent his spare time watching movies to improve his English, which was still very limited. It was a frustrating and lonely time, Hernandez recalled. But Hernandez said that each time he heard back from home that his sister was doing better, he felt more sure that he had done the right thing — not by the law of the land, but the one guiding his heart.

The best medicine 

Hernandez said the money helped buy her medication and medical care, first and foremost, but it was more than that. If she wanted a Happy Meal, she could buy one. “If she wanted new shoes I would tell mom to buy them for her.” She went on a vacation and “saw things she never thought she would,” he said.

“I spoiled her pretty much,” he said. “I made sure she got a decent life.”

The best medicine out there, Hernandez said, is to live well. In America, on a minimum-wage salary busing tables at a Mexican restaurant, he could afford to give her that. Hernandez said he has never looked back and questioned if what he did for her was the right thing. He sees it as the only option he had, regardless of the consequences and complications he and his own wife and children now face.

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Carlos Hernandez picks up his youngest son, Maximus, upon arriving home in West Frankfort Sunday, April 30, 2017. His wife, Elizabeth Hernandez, is behind him and in front of him is his oldest son, Kharloz.

“Once you lose that willingness to live, you’re done. You might not be dying physically, but you’re dying inside, mentally. When people — and it’s horrible to say — but when they have cancer their light goes out. People have different reactions. They don’t accept the fact they are dying,” he said.

“I knew my sister was going to die, I just didn’t know when. She was strong. She fought for many years. The doctors told us she’d live two years, to age 22. But she lived until she was 25. And I don’t want to take credit for those three extra years that were given to her, but making sure that she was happy, going out, going on vacation, not worrying about money — I’m sure that had something to do with her will to live.”

After less than a year of clearing tables, Hernandez said he worked up the courage to ask his manager for a promotion to waiting tables. Hernandez said his boss, the owner of La Fiesta (who declined an interview for this story through Hernandez), saw something in him and encouraged him. But he also issued a stern warning to Hernandez. “I’ll give you a chance,” Hernandez recalled his manager telling him, “but if you don’t understand something do not try to figure it out. Ask me … Don’t assume they want beans when they probably want rice. Just ask.”

Hernandez said his English was still extremely rough. He was nervous but determined. At times, it was even a bit embarrassing the things he had to do to get by, but Hernandez said he found that most people responded well if he kept a sense of humor about it.

Hernandez said that when he first started waiting tables, if he wasn’t sure if someone wanted chicken or beef, he would ask them to clarify by holding his fingers up over his head like bull horns or by flapping his arms around like chicken wings — and telling the customers to  pick which one they wanted. They would laugh, and he’d get the order right. Things got a little easier every day at work, but those were the lighter moments.

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Carolos Herandez kisses La Fiesta patron Nita Haney on the top of her head. Haney and Mary Summers were eating at the restaurant Tuesday, April 11, 2017, and say they are regulars. They say they have known Hernandez for many years and knew him when he was first working at the restaurant's Marion location. 

Saying goodbye to his sister

About five years after he arrived in the U.S., Hernandez said, his sister died, on Dec. 5, 2002. His mom called him two days prior and told him that if he wanted to say goodbye, he would have to make it home fast. She was fading and the doctors didn’t expect her to live through the week. He caught a flight out of St. Louis that same day, he said. “If you don’t have documentation you can get home, but not back,” said Hernandez, who traveled with a Mexican passport.

Hernandez made it home the day she died. “I held her hand as she took her last breath,” he said. He stayed through the funeral the next day, and then started trying to figure out how he would return. Hernandez said that being there with her, he once again felt reassured that he had done the right thing.

But he also knew he wasn't going back to Mexico. Hernandez said that although he came here for his sister, and didn't intend to stay, life happened. By that point, he had bought a house, the first he had ever owned. “So now I had to get back for personal reasons,” he said. Hernandez said he didn’t want his home to go into foreclosure and lose it. Plus, he was starting to make a few friends here. He was having success at work, and the money was good.

And this time, he had a plan to cross the border to return to Southern Illinois. Hernandez said he had randomly met a gentleman in Marion a few months before his sister died, who he came to learn was a “coyote” who helped people get across the border. He was walking alone on Main Street, by a music store in Marion not far from the railroad tracks.

“I can spot a Latino person from a mile away,” Hernandez said. Hernandez said he didn’t know it at the time, but later came to learn the gentleman had recently been arrested. Though he was released, his truck was seized. Remembering all the people who helped him along his journey, Hernandez, who had a car by this point, said he felt compelled to pick him up. “He didn’t look like he was from Marion. That was No. 1. I’d never seen his face before. The look on his face was, ‘I’m lost,’” Hernandez recalled. “I told him to get in the car.”

Hernandez said that he put the gentleman up at his house for a few days. He gave him food and extra clothes, and before he left, Hernandez said the man gave him his number and told him to call if he ever needed his assistance. “All I can remember is his name — Jesus — and we called him Choochoo,” he said. Hernandez said he took that man’s number with him to Mexico, and he called when he was ready to return to Marion after his sister’s funeral.

This time, he said, he crossed the border through an American Indian reservation in Arizona. “The Indians from Arizona, they cross the border and can freely,” he said. “They don’t get searched. It wasn’t like a big port of entry. It was like in the woods, in the middle of nowhere. Only certain people know about it," he said. "It was like going to somebody’s farm.”

A door in the fence

Hernandez recalled that there was a door in the fence at the border, and one or two officers stood guard. He said that on the reservation, a Native American woman instructed him to get in a van — “a big square one.” “I climbed underneath the seats and they had two kids with them,” he said. “An Indian lady, I don’t know what kind, from Arizona, hid me under her seat to drive across the border. She took us to her house.”

They made it across the border, but there was confusion on the other side over payment, he said. “She said she needed her money. I said I’d already paid the guy. She said I needed to give her more money.” Hernandez said the woman drove him to Phoenix, where Jesus picked him up and paid her the rest of the payment she demanded. “He helped me out,” Hernandez said. “That’s how it works.”

But about a year later, he decided to make another return trip to Mexico. This next trip, he would not be so lucky.  

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. 

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Gaia House in Carbondale opens overnight warming station this week for the homeless

CARBONDALE — The man lay on his side on the floor, his head resting on part of a large burgundy pillow, with what looked to be a folded quilt and other linens perched on a ledge above his head.

Near his dark blue pants were two or three bags of items.

He was on the floor of the library at the Gaia House Interfaith Center, perhaps nearing sleep, appearing to try speaking to people leaving a tai chi class and others walking by the door to the library room.

For the night, though, he had been offered the warm, dry, safe floor inside the Gaia House, whose board of directors on Christmas Eve decided to open the facility to those who are homeless during this current cold snap.

Tuesday night would be its third night of opening; at about 6 p.m., two hours before the Gaia House's warming station is set to open, no one appeared interested in making the man leave.

The Gaia House is located at 913 S. Illinois Ave., at the corner of South Illinois and Grand Street in Carbondale.

Began with a New Year's Eve conversation

SouthernEnviron / STEPHANIE ESTERS The Southern 

Fern Chappell

The idea started with a conversation Fern Chappell, a member of the Gaia House board, had with others at a New Year's Eve celebration. Talk turned to the weather and those left outside in the cold temps.

A few hours later, Gaia's doors were opened to anyone needing respite from the cold. That first night, two men spent the night there, Chappell said.

On Monday night, six people took shelter from the cold — five men and one woman.

On Tuesday night, the warming station hosts were not sure how many other people would join the man already there, but they were sure others would join him. The National Weather Service has predicted that overnight temps would dip to 4 to 9 degrees, reaching a high of 29 degrees on Saturday, with a chance of rain and snow on Sunday, when temps could climb as high as 44 degrees.

“We were just trying to get them a place to be warm and safe out of the weather right now," Chappell said. "We’ll discontinue it probably when it warms up … 30, 40 degrees, but if there is another cold snap, then we’ll do it again.”

Chappell said she alerted Carbondale Police that the facility was going to be opened overnight; the warming station's hours run from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. 

The Gaia House overnight warming station will be manned by a friend of Chappell's, who volunteered for the job after she contacted several other prospective volunteers who were unavailable. That friend, Chappell said, told her he found himself homeless in Atlanta during a severe snowstorm the city experienced 20 years ago.

Having 'a big heart'

Carbondale has a shelter, the Good Samaritan House, which provides transitional housing for men, women and children. Good Samaritan operates emergency shelter for up to 25 to 35 people for about 30 days and transitional shelter for up to 10 people in a two-year program. A few weeks ago, the facility's director noted that it would temporarily suspend its zero-tolerance policy for alcohol to provide shelter for people from the cold.

The cold weather has turned the attention of some to the area's homeless, such as a man who appeared to be homeless, crouched against an interior wall at the Amtrak train station on Christmas Eve night; another man who had bunked down in an empty space outside a local gas station/convenience store, on more than one occasion; a small group of others who warmed themselves around a barbecue grill early Friday morning, a few blocks east of downtown; and a man that one Southern Illinois Facebook commenter witnessed stumbling across a busy street to take refuge inside a warm McDonald's restaurant.

Gaia House board president Ellen Jahn said it was not clear how long they would keep the warming station open; the facility has little money coming in and, on average, pays $600 to $800 a month for utilities. There is an online fundraiser to pay for the costs associated with opening as a warming station.


The Gaia House Interfaith Center in Carbondale.

Sleeping space includes the upstairs open area living room where the tai chi class just ended, a room with at least two sofas and a carpeted floor and a piano in one corner.

One thing she said Gaia House is in need of is paper towels, toilet paper and other items; bigger needs items are an air conditioner — for summer months — and in the long term, more energy-efficient windows.

Chappell's friend Maureen Pyle said she was led to do this because she had a "big heart."

Pyle, a former member of the Gaia House board, has volunteered with the Sparrow Coalition, a coalition of people meeting to address issues of poverty and homelessness in Southern Illinois.

"She said, ‘Carbondale can do better than this,’” Pyle said.

Pyle met Chappell from their work forming the 2-year-old Race Unity Group.

"It's just people," Chappell said. "The United States can be better than this. That’s what we’re all looking for, don’t you think?

"We’re all looking (to care) for people. How better to know your neighbor or your brother and sister than to help out? That’s just the way it’s supposed to be… Christian, Muslim, Baha’i… isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?"

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Zeigler may not be able to recoup all the money allegedly stolen by former treasurer

ZEIGLER — Months after the FBI raided Zeigler City Hall and city treasurer Ryan Thorpe was indicted for embezzling funds from the city, Zeigler Mayor Dennis Mitchell said the city may not be getting all the money back.

After the story broke in October that Thorpe was charged in federal court with stealing $315,890.94 from the city between Jan. 1, 2013, and Aug. 31, 2017, Mitchell said he was confident the city would recoup the damages, with its insurance policies that cover crime and with the bond taken out on Thorpe every year.

Now, he’s not so sure.

He said the city has received $100,000 from the Illinois Municipal League, but that there is a disagreement about how much their insurance policy actually covers.

He said it is possible the city may never see the other $215,000.

However, in a deal finalized on Christmas Day, they city has been granted rights to property seized from Thorpe by the FBI last year. According to a document provided by the city’s attorney, Rebecca Whittington, a list of 33 items, including two Honda motorcycles, one Polaris side-by-side, a diamond ring and more than 20 firearms will be turned over to the city. Whittington said the city does not yet have the property and she did not have a timeline as to when it would be turned over.

This was a victory for the city, especially since it may not be getting another insurance payment, because it will be able to sell the items in the hopes of getting some of the money back. Whittington said it is up to the mayor and finance commissioner as to the best way to go about selling the property. However, she said the firearms will need to be sold by a licensed dealer.

Mitchell said while the alleged theft certainly hurt, the fact that it occurred over a few years lessened the blow.

“It wasn’t a Titanic kind of issue where the ship is going to sink,” Mitchell said.

Looking to the new year, Mitchell said he plans to maintain the city's current mode of operating — the city has not yet replaced its treasurer and has been making due with a local CPA taking on many of the financial roles of the treasurer. He said he does plan to replace that position in the next few months, but will a reduced role — the person will handle risk management coordination and some human resource duties, Mitchell said.

He said the city also hopes to pay down some of its debt. He said Zeigler owes about $50,000 to the IML, $20,000 to Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund and $10,000 to Wiggs Excavating.

However, Mitchell said the city is at least saving the roughly $35,000 salary Thorpe made as treasurer, not to mention the “bleeding” of $8,000 to $10,000 a month Thorpe allegedly stole from the city in his last year.

Thorpe pleaded not guilty to the charges against him and is scheduled for a federal jury trial at 9 a.m. Feb. 26.

You can now order alcohol online from Walmart in Carbondale

CARBONDALE — Customers can now order alcohol from Walmart through its online ordering feature.

Although the measure was approved 6-1, councilman Tom Grant was concerned at first about how easy it would be for an underage person to get their hands on an alcoholic beverage. He said it seemed to him that it would be easy for a person to direct an Uber driver to pick up the alcohol and deliver it their house.

“I just see this as a big loophole,” he said.

Carbondale city attorney Jamie Snyder it was his understanding that the person who places the order online has to be the same person who picks it up.

Gary Kramie, Walmart store manager, explained the process to the council. He said when a person places an order online and he or she selects an alcoholic beverage, there are warning signs telling the customer he or she must bring the proper identification to the store to obtain his or her items. The employee selecting the alcoholic beverage at the store places the alcohol in a separate bag with a sticker labeling it as alcohol.

When the customer picks up the items, the employee will be prompted on a handheld electronic device to ask for identification. Additionally, the employee must type the customer’s birth date into the device before allowing him or her to pay for and take possession of the alcohol.

Councilman Jeff Doherty asked if the store could deliver alcohol. Some grocery stores, including Schnucks in Carbondale, have started the process of delivering groceries. Alcohol is not a feature that can be delivered from Schnucks. Snyder said he believes the establishment would act outside its license if it were to occur.

Overall, Kramie said online ordering is a procedure happening in more than 700 Walmart stores across the country and will be implemented in as many as 1,400 by the end of 2018.

“Kroger has been doing this for nine months to a year and nobody has brought it into question,” Snyder said. “I don’t think it would be any different from handing beer out of a drive-up.”

Former Carbondale mayor and city councilman Don Monty said this procedure change could open up larger questions about what delivery mechanisms could be considered for grocery stores.

“For example, can a grocery store come here (to City Council) with a change of operation request to include a drive-up window for alcohol?” Monty asked. “This kind of opens up a bigger picture.”