The Undocumented Immigrant Next Door: A trip to Mexico complicates his path to legal residency

January 5, 2018 GMT

WEST FRANKFORT — The year after returning to Mexico for his sister’s funeral in 2002, about five years after he came to America by sneaking across the border with a friend, Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco made another visit to his home country.

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It is this decision that threatens to undo the quiet life he’s built in Southern Illinois with his wife and three young children. They are American citizens, but he has been living in America without papers for 20 years. For more than a decade, after marrying his wife in 2007, he has attempted to gain legal status. But Hernandez said the decision he made in 2003 to return again has proven to be a major roadblock to his pursuit.

By comparison, the friend he made the journey to Marion with in 1998 is a U.S. citizen today, according to Hernandez.

Not long after they arrived here, he married a U.S. citizen and she was able to sponsor him for legal residency, which eventually turned into citizenship, he said. Hernandez said his friend, however, never tried to return to Mexico, and though the path to citizenship was not without complications for him, it did eventually come to pass.

As Hernandez made that 2003 trip that would later prove fateful, global security was undergoing an epic buckling-down phase.

It had only been two years since al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists hijacked four commercial airlines, causing the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, killing 2,977 people in New York City, the Pentagon, and in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

America was shaken. Security tightened at airports and other points of entry.

The country was hurting, and Hernandez hurt along with it. But life doesn’t stop for tragedies; it merely pauses. Around this time, Hernandez, then in his mid-20s, was struggling with whether to go through with marrying his on-again-off-again fiancee, whom he loved, but wasn’t sure was the one because they didn’t always get along. According to Hernandez, she wanted him to travel to Mexico where they could talk things over, and then get married.

Though the 9/11 attackers were of Middle Eastern descent and none had entered the country by coming across the U.S.-Mexican border, the political sentiment at the time was that this could be viewed as a place of weakness for others wishing to harm the country.

Immigration enforcement bolstered

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the Homeland Security Act. At the same time, Congress pumped huge sums of money into the various agencies that were moved under the umbrella of the newly created Department of Homeland Security, which are charged with such hefty tasks as national security, border patrol, citizenship and immigration services, and enforcement of immigration laws.

Before 9/11, Bush was considered a moderate on immigration. Reform advocates were hopeful that his election in 2000 would bring with it an opportunity to address the complicated U.S. immigration system that had not seen significant reforms in 35 years, according to a 2011 report for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Migration Policy Institute.

“He called for a new and large-scale temporary worker program, saw the growing Hispanic population as important swing voters, and met five times in nine months with Mexico’s newly elected president, Vicente Fox,” wrote Marc Rosenblum in the report titled, “US Immigration Policy Since 9/11: Understanding the Stalemate over Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” In the wake of 9/11, the “war on terrorism” changed the nature of those discussions.

Rosenblum’s report continued, “But migration negotiations with Mexico collapsed following the terrorist attacks against the United States in 2011. In the post 9/11 period, Congress passed a series of tough measures to tighten border security and facilitate data collection and information sharing on suspected terrorists, and broadened the government’s power to detain and deport immigrants.”

Hernandez said he met his then-fiancee in the U.S., but she was staying in Mexico at the time. Hernandez said they were planning to get married during his visit, as she insisted on a traditional wedding in Mexico near her family, and then would return together to America. Instead, not long after he arrived, they split up and decided to go their separate ways, he said. Hernandez said the relationship had been rocky for some time, and wasn’t meant to be.

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Hernandez said he always planned to return from that trip, either married or as a single man. Before he left, Hernandez said he told a friend who had a wife back in Mexico that he would bring her with him on his return trip so the two could be reunited. Together, they set out to sneak across the border.

On this particular journey, Hernandez said they were attempting to use green cards that belonged to other people. “The more money you’ve got, the better your chances of getting across,” he said. “We paid $2,500 for the fake visas.” Hernandez said he made a promise to his friend that he would not cross the border without his friend’s wife.

At the border, he said, people stood in two lines that eventually fed into one. Once arriving near the front of the line, he said, there’s no turning back. The friend’s wife was up ahead of him, and as the officer looked over her visa, Hernandez said he felt his heart sink. “When they take more than 30 seconds to look at it, you’re busted,” he said. Hernandez said he jumped out of the line he was in to intentionally get apprehended alongside her. They were both questioned, booked and released, he said. He recalled telling the officer “I’ll see you tomorrow.” The next day they came back with different green cards and made it through the Customs and Border Protection checkpoint without disruption, he said.

Upon his arrest at his home in West Frankfort on Feb. 9 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, Hernandez said that 2003 incident showed up on his record. Hernandez said he was informed that when he was caught attempting to illegally cross the border in 2003, that barred him from seeking a legal route to enter the U.S. for 10 years. Hernandez said he was not made aware of this fact at the time, but only recently. But that he came here anyway aggravates his legal case, he said.

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After that close call, Hernandez did not make any trips back to Mexico, not even when his father died three years ago. His wife and children went to the funeral services, but Hernandez stayed behind.

Back in Marion from that bumpy 2003 trip, Hernandez said he threw himself into his work.

The days turned into months and into years.

Hernandez turned to the bottle. Between losing his sister, the breakup, and being so far from his family and friends back home, Hernandez said he grew depressed at times, even though he had begun to make new friends in Southern Illinois. Hernandez said he drank socially, but also to numb his emotional pain.

“No Christmas, no birthdays, no holidays with your family. Knowing you can’t go back. It builds up. It builds up — the only way out for me to cope with all of the emotions was drinking,” he said.

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Climbing the ladder, drowning the sadness

Hernandez said his drinking problem became progressively worse. But he continued to achieve success at work. Not only did his English improve considerably and he no longer had to clarify whether a customer wanted “beef” or “chicken” by imitating the animal, as he did for months to get by waiting tables, but also Hernandez’s manager was giving him new and greater responsibilities regularly.

In 2001, not long before his sister passed away, he was named manager of the Marion restaurant, a position he held until 2004. In 2004, the year after he was busted at the border, Hernandez was part of a team sent to Benton as the La Fiesta chain expanded in the region. He helped open that location and then served as a manager there from 2004 to 2007. In 2007, about a decade after he arrived in the U.S., he was tapped again to open another La Fiesta, in West Frankfort, where he’s been the manager since. He met his wife there, and they were married that September.

There were many good things going on in his life, but Hernandez said he continued to drink more than he should. It took him a while to recognize that his drinking had crossed the line, he said.

His problem with alcohol came to a head in 2007 when he was arrested and convicted twice in the same year for drunken driving. Hernandez said his second arrest was a wake-up call. A few years later, he went to counseling and joined a support group. Hernandez said he began to work through some of the anger he had buried deep inside himself about his abusive father whose shortcomings left him to provide for the family when he was still just a boy.

For the first time in his life, Hernandez said he learned to begin to let go of a lot of the pain he’d been carrying around all of these years and find healthier ways of coping.

Slowly, the weight of what he had been through as a young person began to lift from his shoulders. He looked for more constructive outlets to his daily frustrations, and began to socialize more.

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It didn’t happen overnight, but as the years ticked on, in this conservative little community known for coal mining and furniture stores and Redbird athletics — in a place he could have imagined building a life, yet alone loving it — Hernandez began to feel at home. Less than two years after he married his wife, Elizabeth, the two welcomed their first son into the world. Now, that little boy is 9 years old.

Over time, he became closer to many of the regulars that came by for food — the school teachers, the coal miners, the law enforcement officers, local business owners and others. They asked about his babies; he asked about theirs. He held benefits for people who were sick, for sports teams in need of uniforms, to help a dance team travel to nationals, to support the local fire department, and for countless other causes.

ICE comes knocking

Fast-forward to the election of President Donald Trump, who promised during the campaign to crack down people living in the country illegally, particularly those with criminal records. Those two DUIs Hernandez received in 2007 — both misdemeanors — came back to haunt him, even though he said he hasn’t had a drop to drink in seven years.

Hernandez said ICE officials have knocked on his door before looking for other people they thought he might know. But in the few times it happened in the past, they left Hernandez alone, even though they knew he was here illegally. He wasn’t considered a high priority for immigration enforcement, which has for years been under a mandate to detain people with certain serious criminal histories, mostly felony convictions.

But when the ICE officials knocked on his door in February to ask about another man they were seeking — Hernandez said he knew of the man, but did not know him well — they ran a background check on him, as is typical. This time he was arrested. Hernandez said the ICE officials told him that with Trump in office, policies had changed, and the two DUIs could no longer be overlooked.

On Jan. 25, just days into the presidency, Trump signed an executive order expanding enforcement priorities for immigration officers. The American Immigration Council described the “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” order as outlining priorities “so broadly as to place all unauthorized individuals at risk of deportation, including families, long-time residents and ‘Dreamers’ (those who were brought to this country as children).”

Hernandez said the exchange with ICE officials was polite. They let him call his wife and tell her he would not be home when she arrived back at the house from work. He was detained in an immigration detention center about an hour west of St. Louis, where he spent about a week. It was during a hearing before an immigration judge that his detainment at the border in 2003 surfaced, he said.

His youngest son turned 2 while he was behind bars. Unbeknownst to him, a number of people from his hometown organized to do what they could to help his case. Numerous people expressed their support on social media by changing their profile picture to one of Hernandez to include the words “I stand with Carlos.” The story of a conservative community that backed Trump in the election supporting an unauthorized immigrant with such vigor was picked up by local media, and then the New York Times, after which it spread around the world.

But behind bars and without internet access, Hernandez would not come to understand the full extent of his newfound fame for days.