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WEST FRANKFORT, Ill. — The first time I came to this small Southern Illinois city, in February, the person I was here to write about — Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco — was nowhere to be found. He was locked up in a Missouri detention facility.
Mr. Hernandez had been arrested for being undocumented, amid a national conversation over President Trump’s promises to crack down on illegal immigration.
Listen to ‘The Daily’: Revisiting Carlos
In the early weeks of the Trump administration, we met a man who got caught up in the president’s crackdown on immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. What has happened to him since?
So everything I learned during that visit about Mr. Hernandez — just Carlos to the 8,000 residents of West Frankfort — came from his neighbors here, in a community that had voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump. Their views on Mr. Hernandez felt like a rare chance to look at the complicated, unexpected ways that federal policy was playing out inside one town.
In letters to the immigration court that could decide whether he will be deported, influential residents raved about Mr. Hernandez, someone most people in this mostly white coal-mining crossroads had not realized had been living here without papers for about 20 years.
West Frankfort’s mayor, Tom Jordan, called him a “great asset” to the city who “doesn’t ask for anything in return.” The fire chief described him as “a man of great character.” The recommendation that may have stuck with me most came from a resident who confided that he really did not like having many people in his life at all but Mr. Hernandez was the rare exception, someone who was welcome at his home for dinner.
This month, I returned to West Frankfort. I wanted to know what community leaders like Mayor Jordan were thinking now. And I wanted to meet Mr. Hernandez after hearing all those stories — about how he always asked after peoples’ family members by their names at the Mexican restaurant he managed; how he donated scholarships to the local high school; how he hosted fund-raisers to support local police officers.
Mr. Hernandez, who was released on a $3,000 bond in March on the promise he would return to court at a later date, sat at his kitchen table the other day in the trim house he shares with his wife, Elizabeth, and their three young sons. No, he told me, he had not read all those glowing letters about him.
He was grateful and humbled when he emerged from several weeks in detention to find out about the avalanche of support. But he was also a little uncomfortable knowing that people had been ticking off stories about acts of charity that he had never meant to be public.
He was stunned, he recalled, when he turned on his phone the day he was released from the detention facility. “It was like, ‘Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!’”
Emails flooded in from around the world. Supporters wrote to say that Mr. Hernandez’s acts of civic responsibility over two decades should matter more than how he got here from Mexico. Plenty of critics wrote, too: Some said laws were laws and noted that Mr. Hernandez also had two drunken-driving convictions from 2007; some fellow Latinos viewed him as betraying or rejecting Mexico.
But in West Frankfort, feelings about Mr. Hernandez seem not to have changed much, and life has moved on.
At a panel I moderated inside the city’s old firehouse, I heard from both community leaders and longtime residents that questions about the economy tend to eclipse matters like immigration around here.
People seemed more worried about the future of coal, on which the area has depended; about hopes for some new major employer; about whether young people, dreaming of decent jobs, will stay put; about the strain that state fiscal woes have placed on this part of Illinois; and about the flood of drugs that the local sheriff, Don Jones, said had some role in the lives of nearly all 114 inmates in his jail.
“I love the coal industry,” said Jim Muir, the county’s circuit court clerk, who spent almost two decades working at a coal mine, starting when he turned 18. “But I don’t think it will ever be back to where it was.”
Mayor Jordan said West Frankfort was “built on coal,” and recognized people in the audience who had worked in the mines or were children of those who had. The region’s challenge, most believe, is finding a thriving economic path forward.
“We don’t really get involved in a lot of immigration issues in West Frankfort,” Mr. Jordan said.
For Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco, though, those questions are far from answered. His next court date has been set for April 19, 2021.
It is a date he says he thinks about endlessly. He swerves from miserable (if he is deported, his family will remain here) to hopeful (maybe a judge will allow him to stay). On the one hand, he’s counting down to what he sees as the equivalent of an execution date; on the other, he feels he has been granted precious time.