What to do about Carlos? Illinois town torn on fate of undocumented immigrant

Juan Carlos Hernandez-Pacheco, right, is being held at a detention center in Missouri.

Story highlights

  • Juan Carlos Hernandez-Pacheco faces deportation to his native Mexico
  • Many in West Frankfort support Hernandez, others say he should pay price for illegal status

West Frankfort, Illinois (CNN)Residents of this small mining town surrounded by cornfields in southern Illinois are part of a county that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, who campaigned on tough immigration policies and promises to deport undocumented migrants.

But when it comes to their friend Carlos, they're conflicted.
Juan Carlos Hernandez-Pacheco -- a beloved restaurant manager and a man known for helping out in the community -- faces a hearing Wednesday that could result in him being deported to his native Mexico.
    Hernandez was arrested February 9 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in a sweep targeting another person.
    "In Carlos' case they were out looking for someone else and they saw Carlos and asked for his documents," said his attorney, Victor Arana. "He has never been in jail but when they saw his prior DUI conviction nearly 10 years ago, immigration officials placed him into custody as a so-called 'target of opportunity.'"
    Hernandez actually has two DUI convictions.
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    Since his arrest, many friends, neighbors and other members of the community -- including the mayor -- have written letters of support for Hernandez. Others note that he was here illegally, and say he should face a penalty for that.

    Generous member of the community

    Hernandez, 38, came to West Frankfort in 1998, according to longtime friend Tim Grigsby. The two men have known each other for 10 years -- the same amount of time Hernandez has been manager of the town's popular Mexican restaurant, La Fiesta.
    Hernandez, left, with friend Mark Williams, right, as the two participated in a community event.
    During his time there, Hernandez has gained popularity and is involved in many of the town's activities, friends say.
    "Carlos' character and personality is such that if you were going to ever have a role model, it's Carlos," Grigsby said. "He is the definition of how you should be living life."
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    Locals say they know Hernandez for his generous spirit. "The big thing for me was during one wintertime, and we had a fully involved structure fire, with flames coming out," said West Frankfort Fire Chief Jody Allen. "Someone mentioned there was gentleman who wanted to bring some food, and of course most of the time they bring some water or candy bars. I look down and there are two tents set up with tables."
    West Frankfort Fire Department Chief Jody Allen wrote a letter of support for Hernandez.
    "It's almost like he went to his restaurant and brought everything he could," Allen added. "We had all kinds of tacos, guacamole sauce. It was just amazing."

    Letters of support

    As word spreads about his arrest, some residents of West Frankfort -- which was 97% white in 2010, according to the US Census Bureau -- are writing letters to the court in support of the restaurant manager.
    "I feel Carlos is a man of character," West Frankfort Mayor Tom Jordan wrote in one letter. "I do not feel that Carlos is a flight risk. He is married and loves his children. He is a loyal member of this community. He owns property here. He is a committed father and would never leave his family to fend for themselves."
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    Local Rotary Club President Gina Blankenship said Hernandez is a crucial part of the town.
    "I suspect we need Carlos more than he needs us," Gina Blankenship wrote. "He is the best part of the fabric weaved into this community."
    Grigsby cited another example of Hernandez' big heart. When a local man needed a hearing aid for his child, Hernandez called him out of the blue and offered him $500, Grigsby said. "Carlos just wanted to help him hear."
    In a message relayed by Grigsby, Hernandez wrote that he is grateful for those who have come to his defense.
    "My hope is that this incident will help further my dream to become a legal citizen of this great country and community that I have grown to love," he wrote.

    'Everyone has to follow the law'

    But not everyone in town is supportive of Hernandez after learning he lived illegally in the country for nearly 20 years.
    "The man had plenty of time I think ... to get his citizenship, you know? I mean, in the back of his mind he had to know he was illegal," said Chuck Jacksnicz, who lives in West Frankfort and said he knows Hernandez.
    "Go through the system where you can become legal and become an American citizen."
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    Amanda Mays is a bartender at Pup's 212, on Main Street.
    "It's not that I think that it's great that they came and took him. It's sad," she said. "Everyone has to follow the law. Period."
    Mays says she has heard about the support Hernandez is receiving from others in town.
    "No matter how good a person you are, illegal is illegal. I think that it's sad (if he gets deported) and it's going to hurt a lot of people, but it doesn't change the fact that the law is the law."

    Father of three

    Hernandez is being held at a federal detention center in central Missouri, away from his wife and three kids in West Frankfort.
    ICE confirmed that Hernandez remains in custody pending the hearing.
    "Every day, as part of routine operations, ICE officers target and arrest criminal aliens and other individuals who are in violation of our nation's immigration laws," the agency said in a statement regarding his arrest.
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    Arana said Hernandez' arrest is a product of the Trump administration's shift in immigration enforcement priorities.
    "Past administrations have been more microscopic, while targeting people with violent crimes and sex assault crimes," the lawyer said. "But this administration has expanded the net to include DUIs and has also said (to enforcement agencies), if you're out looking for someone and run across anyone else who's undocumented, then pick them up."

    Attorney: Client won residents over

    If there's a case that requires a closer look before ruling on a deportation decision, this would be it, the attorney said.
    "Some of these people who come here from other countries create space between themselves and the community and hang out in their own spaces," Arana said. "But Carlos has jumped in with both feet, waving the American flag and has this kind of support we've seen in the community."
    Arana hopes Hernandez will be released on bond. He said any fears the court may have about Hernandez either skipping future court appearances or not being able to support himself should be put to rest by the impressive display of support from the community.
    "If you know people and are part of the community, you are more likely to come back to court," Arana said.
    Grigsby even offered an affidavit of support for Hernandez -- a legally-binding promise to take care of his friend and foot the bill if he needs help.
    Read two of the letters of support below.