A small, Illinois town came together to save a neighbor this week.
West Frankfort, Illinois made national headlines for the community’s efforts to help Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco. Hernandez came to the U.S. about twenty years ago from Mexico, but does not have legal paperwork.
“I always felt safe,” he said. “I didn't live in the shadows. I wasn't hiding.”
In early February, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials arrested Hernandez. ICE notes drunk driving convictions on his record from 2007.
At a bond hearing on Wednesday, an immigration judge reviewed Hernandez’ case and a stack of letters from community leaders in West Frankfort, asking him to stay. Letters came from the mayor, a police officer, a prosecutor, the fire chief and the rotary club. They described Hernandez as a good husband and father, and a role model who was very involved in the community.
The judge granted Hernandez bond. He left the jail in St. Louis returned to his family and community in Illinois Wednesday evening.
“I talked to my wife pretty much three or four times on the way home,” he said. “It was emotional.”
When he saw his children, he made a promise to his oldest son,
“I told him, I will never go away again. I will stay.”
Friends Tim Grigbsy and Mark Williams helped collect the letters, and were in St. Louis to pick up Hernandez on Wednesday.
“I feel very proud of our community, for stepping up – it’s good to be part of a town like that,” Grigsby said.
The story is now making national headlines, as the debate around immigration continues.
West Frankfort, a town of 8,000 people located about 100 miles from St. Louis, supported Donald Trump in the presidential election. An aggressive immigration stance is central to President Trump's agenda, including promises to deport millions of illegal immigrants.
Hernandez said he was treated well during his time in jail, and doesn’t blame the government for what happened.
“Especially ICE, they’re just doing their job,” he said.
Hernandez said he hopes to meet Trump. If he could speak to the president in person, he said he would explain why he wants to become a U.S. citizen, and legally contribute to his community.
“Give me a chance. Let me show you, we can. I can.”
On Thursday, ICE officials said Hernandez' removal proceedings remain pending in immigration court.
He and his attorney are already working on the paperwork in the next step toward getting lawful citizenship.
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