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.
Early in 2017, Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco was unexpectedly thrust under an international spotlight when he was detained by Immigration and …
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.”
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.”
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.
WEST FRANKFORT — Earlier this year, Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco was unexpectedly thrust under an international spotlight when he was detaine…
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.”
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.
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.
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI