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Immigration remains a hot-button topic in the United States, and in Southern Illinois.

That’s not an opinion … as this page is labeled. It is a fact borne out by the heated online discussion generated by The Southern Illinoisan’s selection of West Frankfort’s Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco as our “Person of the Year.”

That selection has been roundly criticized, sometimes rationally, sometimes emotionally. By the same token, others have seen the selection for what it is — an opportunity to discuss one of the vexing, complicated real-life issues of our time.

People who view the selection as an homage to lawbreakers are missing the point. Hernandez puts a face, a local face, on a national issue. Too often, illegal immigration is discussed in terms of numbers: How many immigrants are here illegally, how many immigrants are illegally obtaining government benefits, and how many immigrants are committing crimes.

Hernandez’s story gets past the numbers. It puts a human face on what is clearly an emotional issue.

For those unfamiliar with Hernandez’s story, a brief synopsis: He came to this country illegally 20 years ago to find a job so he could send money back home to a sister who was ill. Hernandez eventually found his way to Marion where he found work at La Fiesta. Eventually, he worked his way up to manager of the West Frankfort location. In the meantime, he got married and started a family. He has been seeking legal status, but a pair of DUI convictions from 2007 and a stop at the U.S.-Mexican border have complicated that process. Hernandez quit drinking seven years ago, but was arrested by ICE authorities in 2017 and imprisoned briefly.

Which brings us to today. Hernandez is back in West Frankfort operating his restaurant. He and his family have assimilated into the community, providing employment opportunities for the restaurant staff, sponsoring sports teams and holding benefits for a youth dance team, the local fire department and other causes.

Yet, Hernandez remains a lightning rod in the eyes of some people because he retains illegal status while navigating the twisting path that is the U.S. immigration system.

Two of the major complaints heard about illegal immigrants are they don’t learn English, and, they take, rather than contribute to society.

Hernandez has checked those items off his list. His struggles to learn English were well documented in a series of stories last week. And, he has worked his way up from bus boy to manager of a restaurant. If he had a different background, Hernandez’s story might be seen as the embodiment of the American dream.

The other common thread is the criticism of Hernandez is his illegal status.

There are a couple things to consider.

First, he has been working diligently to achieve legal status. He is living in the open, not hiding from authorities.

Second, illegal isn’t synonymous with evil or dangerous.

Throughout American history, laws and policies have been changed because of grassroots actions that, at times, involved activities deemed “illegal.” Remember, what Rosa Parks did on that Montgomery, Alabama, bus was illegal.

Some of the great advocates for social justice were arrested during their lives — Martin Luther King and Gandhi come to mind. And, let’s not forget, if a few skirmishes involving the Continental Army had gone the other way, many of our founding fathers would have found their way into English jails.

Is that meant to compare Hernandez directly to Parks, King or Gandhi? Absolutely not. But, the movements championed by these leaders were populated by thousands who demonstrated in the streets, or had the audacity to eat at lunch counters reserved for Caucasians.

Democracy isn’t always a pretty process. Hernandez’s situation is a prime example.

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