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.

Richard Sitler
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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 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. 



On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​