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2017 PERSON OF THE YEAR | Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco
2017 Person of the Year: Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco, the undocumented immigrant next door

WEST FRANKFORT — Earlier this year, Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco was unexpectedly thrust under an international spotlight when he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and his story traveled around in the world in various media reports. 

Though his wife and children are American citizens, Hernandez has been an undocumented resident of the United States for about 20 years. As word spread that he had been detained on Feb. 9, many in the small Franklin County town of 8,000 his family calls home were shocked to learn he has been living in the country without papers. But then again, why would they know? It’s not the kind of thing that comes up in casual conversation.

For years, Hernandez and his family have lived a quiet life in Southern Illinois. They are busy with work, and their children’s school activities. They have a toddler at home who keeps them running around and generally exhausted in the way to which anyone who has ever been around a 2-year-old can easily relate.

Since 2007, Hernandez has been the manager of La Fiesta, a Mexican eatery in West Frankfort. The chain has locations throughout Southern Illinois. Prior to that, he worked at the company’s Marion and Benton locations. He and his wife also operate a food truck business called La Rana Grill. His wife, Elizabeth Hernandez, also works as a waitress at La Fiesta, at the Benton location. She had previously worked at the West Frankfort location, where they met. They celebrated their 10-year wedding anniversary on Sept. 27. The couple has three children, Kharloz, 9, Gianluca, 7, and Maximus, 2. The older two boys attend Frankfort Community Unit School District 168.

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. 

At first, a few negative rumors spread as people speculated about why he was detained. But as details emerged, many of his neighbors showed their support. Hernandez’s close friend, Tim Grigsby, who owns a printing business in West Frankfort, organized a letter-writing campaign on Hernandez’s behalf while he was still behind bars. The lawyer representing Hernandez told him a few letters might help his case before an immigration judge. They received more than a few. Across West Frankfort, numerous residents and prominent city and county leaders, including the mayor, fire chief, a deputy police chief and state’s attorney, wrote letters of support for Hernandez, detailing the countless ways he has given back to the community over the years. After his story made headlines, Grigsby said he received hundreds more letters and emails. 

The breadth of his quiet generosity, as detailed in those letters, shocked even Grigsby, who knew Hernandez has a kind heart and has done many things to help people, but didn’t realize the extent of his giving over the years.

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.

Hernandez’s story quickly spread among local media outlets. The Southern Illinoisan published a story on Feb. 18 titled “Friends, family rally behind West Frankfort restaurant manager detained by ICE.” It was shared widely on social media and generated a number of comments, both those in support of Hernandez and critical of him for building a life here as an undocumented immigrant. On Feb. 27, the New York Times published a piece on Hernandez and the town’s reaction to his detainment in an immigration detention center about an hour west of St. Louis titled, “He’s a Local Pillar in a Trump Town. Now He could Be Deported.”

That story elevated Hernandez to celebrity status, at least for a news cycle. Many major television networks and newspapers picked up on the story after the Times’ piece. Hernandez did not have access to the internet during the 20 days he was in the detention center, and was surprised to find how far his story had traveled when he was released March 1 on a $3,000 bond and a promise to return for his hearing at a future date. Arriving back in West Frankfort, national news crews greeted him at the restaurant near his house. He began hearing from people around the world. Hernandez and his wife, Elizabeth, described the whole experience as overwhelming.

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.

About a week after his release, CNN flew him to New York to appear on “The Messy Truth” hosted by commentator Van Jones. The feedback they received was a mix of positive and negative, but what almost all the comments had in common was that they were impassioned. Among the negative comments, Hernandez heard not only from people in America angry that he had broken civil immigration laws, but also from Mexicans and Mexican immigrants to the U.S who thought he was being supportive of President Donald Trump. Hernandez said in interviews that he understood why the tough-talking president — then just a month into office — is popular among some Americans, including the majority of people in his hometown, and that he supported some of his policies about securing the border because of the number of people who lose their lives trying to cross it.

Hernandez said some of the things he said were taken out of context in the rush of interviews, and as television news edited lengthy conversations to short clips to fit their segments. His wife instructed him to shy away from doing any more national news interviews, as she was unsettled by the attention.

The national story line in Hernandez’s case became about the outpouring of support for an undocumented immigrant facing possible deportation in a region that overwhelmingly supported Trump during the presidential election.

That Hernandez did not lash out in anger at Trump upon his arrest, and offered comments in support of some of the president's immigration policy positions, added intrigue. One of Trump’s prime presidential campaign platforms centered on cracking down more stringently on people living in the country in violation civil immigration laws.

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.

On a few occasions, he used harsh descriptions of Mexicans to make his policy points in support of more rapidly finding and removing undocumented immigrants with criminal records, and for building a wall at the border. It was as much the offensive language he used as the policies he pushed that drew sharp criticism from many camps, including from within his own party ranks.

As the story about Hernandez and his supporters in West Frankfort gained traction, both expressed frustration, at times, that they felt reduced to sound bites, and their complicated stories and feelings on the issue of immigration law and Trump neatly packaged to prove a political point. For instance, Hernandez said he respects the position of president, whoever holds the office. West Frankfort also became the source of scorn by some outsiders who criticized those citizens who came to Hernandez’s defense and voted for Trump as hypocrites.

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Nicky Bowers (left) and Iris Kohzadi put up a poster listing the numerous sponsors helping with a benefit that they organized for Carlos Hernandez. The benefit was held Saturday, June 24, 2017, at La Fiesta restaurant in West Frankfort.

Still only months removed from a contentious presidential battle that divided the nation, Hernandez’s story became about immigration law and the rural-urban divide all at once, as Middle America helped catapult Trump to the White House much to the surprise of many coastal elites. The story of Hernandez and the conservative coal mining town that rallied around him offered all the right ingredients to strike a collective national nerve. Some of the more nuanced details were lost in the mix.

This story begins a mini-series, “The Undocumented Immigrant Next Door.” The series aims to shed more light on Hernandez’s journey to America, his ongoing legal battle, his family, the West Frankfort community members who rallied behind him, and America's complex immigration laws that affect millions of people like Hernandez. The weeklong series kicks off with The Southern Illinoisan announcing Hernandez as its “Person of the Year” for 2017.

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.

There are still many unknowns for the Hernandez family. Complicating matters is that Hernandez has two drunken driving convictions on his record from 2007. Though he no longer drinks and has a support system to keep him from relapsing, an immigration judge could look unfavorably on this. However, the bigger issue is that he was caught attempting to illegally cross the border several times in the late-1990s as he first attempted to make it to America, and again in 2003 when he was coming back to Illinois after visiting his home country. 

When ICE officials detained Hernandez on Feb. 9, they came knocking on his door looking for someone else. It wasn’t the first time he had been paid a visit by ICE officials for similar reasons, but this time Hernandez said he was told they could not overlook the decade-old DUIs. As for whether that is directly related to new get-tough immigration policies implemented by Trump, that’s a complicated question that is difficult to answer, immigration law experts say.

Immigration law was confusing and its application to unauthorized immigrants somewhat arbitrary long before Trump’s inciting comments on the campaign trail. People have been removed from the country for lesser offenses, or with no criminal offenses at all, as federal immigration judges have the ability to exercise a considerable degree of discretion in such cases. A recently trending national story on immigration, which cites data from the Mexican government, states that the U.S. government under the Trump administration in 2017 returned fewer Mexicans home than did the administration of President Barack Obama in 2016. At the same time, arrests of suspected unauthorized immigrants increased in 2017, by as much as 42 percent, according to a Dec. 5 Reuters report, likely attributable to Trump expanding the categories of unauthorized immigrants to be prioritized for deportation. 

Hernandez has a long time to wait to find out his fate.

The immigration courts are so clogged that his next court appearance isn’t until April 2021. That’s a mixed bag for the Hernandez family. On one hand, Hernandez won’t find out whether he can stay in the country long-term with his family for nearly three and a half years. But it also buys him time. Hernandez has secured a temporary work permit, and he is allowed to stay in the U.S. pending his hearing. At that time, he faces the possibility of deportation and separation from his wife and family.

Hernandez said he will not take them with him, as America is the only life his boys have ever known. Meanwhile, his lawyer, Austin, Texas-based attorney Victor Arana, a graduate of the Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Law, continues to pursue a variety of legal avenues that could allow Hernandez to gain legal residency.

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco's sons, Gianluca, Kharloz and Maximus, play at their home in West Frankfort, Tuesday, April 9, 2017.

The Southern Illinoisan chose Hernandez as its “Person of the Year” because his is a story that challenges many assumptions about immigration law and the rural-urban divide, and puts a familiar face on a complex national debate.

Beyond that, the newspaper chose Hernandez because his personal story, the one that wasn’t told in the viral headlines, is so exceedingly human. It’s chock-full of pain and obstacles, but also acceptance, love and second chances. His is a story about the ways in which these healing virtues are sometimes found in the most unlikely of places and people. Hernandez’s story, which is both complex and ordinary, illustrates in full color the ways that immigration law and rural America can be as messy as life itself.

This story has been updated. 

Illinois 200: These are the top 10 athletes from Illinois

Editor’s note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at

Illinois has produced many outstanding and game-changing athletes, so it’s a tough job to create any top 10 list.

The Illinois Press Association and Illinois Associated Press Media Editors enlisted longtime Chicago Sun-Times sports reporter Mark Potash for the job. Here is his list of the top 10 athletes from Illinois.

1. Red Grange, Wheaton

Harold (Red) Grange

The early days of professional football were not pretty or promising — obviously not televised but also casually recognized. The Bears and Cardinals were relegated to secondary pages of the sports sections in Chicago, with college football dominant and even high school football more prominent.

And more than that, pro football was a second-class citizen in American sport — considered substandard to college football and to some, an unseemly, disrespected profession. The best college players didn’t automatically go to the National Football League.

Red Grange helped change all of that. The running back from Wheaton and the University of Illinois rivaled even Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey as an American sports star in the 1920s. When he signed with the Bears out of Illinois in 1925, he almost single-handedly changed the face of the NFL — giving it an instant credibility that was reflected in banner headlines and sell-out crowds.

Grange’s debut with the Bears on Thanksgiving Day drew 36,000 fans at Cubs Park — the largest crowd in the then-brief history of the future Wrigley Field. Ten days later, Grange drew a record 65,000 to the Polo Grounds for a game against Tim Mara’s fledgling New York Giants — an event that without exaggeration is credited with not only saving that franchise, but leaving an impression on eastern sports writers that further legitimized pro football. On a winter barnstorming tour following the season, Grange and the Bears drew a record 65,270 to the Los Angeles Coliseum.

As it turned out, Red Grange’s impact on the field would never match all of that. While playing for the New York Yankees in 1927 after a salary dispute with the Bears, Grange suffered a knee injury and missed the 1928 season. He returned to the Bears in 1929, but had lost the speed and agility that made him a superstar. He made his mark as an outstanding defensive back — most notably making a touchdown-saving tackle on the final play that clinched the Bears’ 23-21 victory over Giants in the NFL championship game. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.

All things considered, no player from Illinois has had more impact on a sport than Red Grange. He was a four-sport star at Wheaton High School who scored 75 touchdowns. He became a superstar as a three-time All-American at Illinois who famously rose to the occasion of the big game when he scored four touchdowns in the first quarter against Michigan in 1924 at newly dedicated Memorial Stadium — a 95-yard return of the opening kickoff, plus runs of 67, 56 and 44 yards. In those days he was a larger-than-life star, his No. 77 was almost as famous as he was. And even then, the best was yet to come.

2. Dick Butkus, Chicago

Provided by the Chicago Sun-Times 

Dick Butkus

The greatest tribute to Dick Butkus’ fabulous NFL career is that as time passes and the linebacker position evolves arguably more than any in football — bigger, faster, greater athletes with triple-digit career sack numbers — his stature continues to grow. The former Vocational High School and University of Illinois star still is No. 3 in most linebacker rankings. Some still say he’s there greatest linebacker to play the game. The Butkus Award is given to the best linebacker not only in college, but in high school and the NFL.

Why? Because even with all-time greats such as Lawrence Taylor and Ray Lewis joining the best-of-all-time discussion, there always will only be one Dick Butkus. As the late Doug Buffone often said, “To play this game you have to have the Neanderthal gene — Butkus had two.”

But Butkus’ greatness lies deeper than that. It’s almost a shame that Butkus’ reputation as a mean, angry, dirty player overshadows the reality that he was one of the most instinctive, disciplined, fundamentally sound and opportunistic players ever. He had a knack for being in the exact spot to make that brutal hit. And he had great hands. It’s almost ironic that Butkus, despite his reputation, was one of the cleanest, surest tacklers of all-time.

He was named to the All-Pro team five times and the Pro Bowl eight times. In 119 NFL games, he had 22 interceptions and 27 fumble recoveries. And the ferocity with which he played was real. Buffone, who played next to Butkus for seven years, often recalled looking at a frothing Butkus on the field and thinking, “I’m glad he’s on my side.”

3. George Mikan, Joliet

Provided by the Chicago Sun-Times 

George Mikan

At 6-10, George Mikan was the first superstar of professional basketball — the first big-man who could run the floor and dominate at the rim on both ends. His impact forced three rules changes: goaltending, widening of the lane and the 24-second clock. When he played with the Minneapolis Lakers in 1949, the marquee at Madison Square Garden said it all: “GEO MIKAN V/S KNICKS.”

An awkward, un-athletic prospect from Quigley Prep/Joliet Catholic, Mikan flourished under Ray Meyer’s tutelage at DePaul, becoming a three-time All-American and two-time Player of the Year in college. He won seven professional league championships, including one with the Chicago American Gears of the fledgling National Basketball League and six with the Lakers.

4. Isiah Thomas, Chicago


Chicago's Michael Jordan (left) knocks the ball away from Detroit's Isiah Thomas during an NBA playoff game at Chicago Stadium.

The epitome of the head-strong, will-to-win Chicago point guard, Isiah Thomas parlayed his innate skills and determination into superstardom and championships. A west side native, he took St. Joseph High School in Westchester from anonymity to second place in the Class AA state tournament in 1979. He led Indiana to the NCAA title in 1981 and was the spark plug on the Pistons’ back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990.

Thomas was a 12-time NBA all-star and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2000.

5. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, East St. Louis


Jackie Joyner-Kersee waves during medal ceremonies for the women's heptathlon at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

A basketball and track star at East St. Louis Lincoln and UCLA, Jackie Joyner-Kersee made her biggest mark in international track competitions, particularly the Olympics, where she won six medals in four different Olympics — including a silver medal in the heptathlon in 1984 in Los Angeles and gold in the heptathlon in 1988 in Seoul and 1992 in Barcelona. She was named the greatest female athlete of all time by Sports Illustrated for Women in 1990.

6. Otto Graham, Waukegan

Provided by the Chicago Sun-Times 

Otto Graham (48), an all-star halfback from Northwestern, races for a 20-yard gain in the second quarter of a game at Dyche Stadium in Evanston.

The Big Ten Player of the Year at Northwestern — where he also played basketball and baseball — in 1943, Otto Graham became a prolific quarterback and one of the great leaders of pro football history. He won seven league titles with Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns in the old All-American Football Conference (1946-49) and NFL (1950, 1954 and 1955) and three NFL Most Valuable Player awards (1951, 1953, 1955).

7. Ray Nitschke, Maywood

Chicago Sun-Times 

Ray Nitschke (right), of the Green Bay Packers, receives is taped up by trainer Bud Jorgensen.

A rough-and-tough, fierce competitor from Proviso High School, Ray Nitschke was a third-round draft pick by the Packers out of Illinois who was at the right place at the right time — becoming an intimidating force as the leader of the great Packer defenses in the Vince Lombardi era.

Nitschke won five NFL championships with the Packers, including the first two Super Bowls. He was the MVP of the 1962 championship game.

8. Jimmy Connors, Belleville

Chicago Sun Times 

Jimmy Connors

The “Brash Basher of Belleville,” as tennis guru Bud Collins called him, the East St. Louis native was a gritty, gutty, unconventional player and nonconformist who is credited with sparking a re-birth in American tennis in the early 1970s. Jimmy Connors won eight Grand Slam titles, a record 109 singles titles and was ranked No. 1 in the world for 268 weeks, including a then-record 160 straight from 1974-77.

In 1974 at age 22, Connors went 99-4 and won 15 tournaments, including three Grand Slam events — the Australian Open, U.S. Open and Wimbledon. He was barred from the French Open (the second leg) because of a contract with the World Team Tennis, costing him a chance to win the Grand Slam.

9. Lou Boudreau, Harvey

Chicago Sun-Times 

A 1960 photo at Wrigley Field of the Cubs' Kiddie Corps features manager Lou Boudreau (from left), third baseman Ron Santo, outfielder Danny Murphy, and pitcher Dick Ellsworth.

A Hall of Fame shortstop with the Cleveland Indians, Lou Boudreau had one of the greatest baseball seasons of all-time as player/manager in 1948. He won the American League batting title (.355) and MVP award and led the Indians to the World Series championship — the only title the Indians have won since 1920. Great knack for leadership, Boudreau won a state title in basketball as a sophomore at Thornton and Big Ten titles as team captain in basketball and baseball at Illinois.

10. Bonnie Blair, Champaign

John J. Kim, Chicago Sun-Times 

Olympic speed skater Bonnie Blair demonstrates skating techniques in 2006 on a slide board during Mayor Daley's Holiday Sports Fest at McCormick Place Thursday in Chicago.

Bonnie Blair won five gold medals at three different Olympic Games, capped by a dominating performance in 1994 at Lillehammer, when she won the 500-meters (by 0.36 seconds) and 1,000 meters (by a record-1.38 seconds) by wide margins. She was the first American to win an event (the 500-meters) in three consecutive Olympics. She won the Sullivan Award as the best amateur athlete in the U.S. in 1992.