MARSHALL, Mo. (AP) – From the Little League fields to the Habitat for Humanity boardroom, everyone in this central Missouri town seemed to know Manuel “Paco” Lopez.

A devoted father and civic volunteer, the Mexican immigrant served as a translator at the local hospital, schools, crime scenes and anywhere else people asked.

So when police asked for help interrogating a Spanish-speaking murder suspect, he dutifully agreed – even though it meant revealing he was actually an illegal immigrant named Francisco Xavier Inzunza.

Once Marshall police reported him, immigration officers made the 43-year-old an offer: work as a confidential informant for the federal immigration agency in exchange for an annual work permit.

But his informant career was a spectacular flop. Drug dealers and fake identification peddlers didn’t want much to do with a church leader and school volunteer. Soon after the murder suspect’s conviction in 2002, Inzunza was informed he faced deportation from the place he has called home for a dozen years.

The Marshall mayor, police chief, school superintendent – even the prosecutor who Inzunza helped – pledged to support a man who for years hid his true identity.

“Most of the illegal aliens stay in the background. They don’t get out,” said Chuck Hird, a retired Marshall meatpacking plant manager. “Paco was different. That’s what got him in trouble.”

Sixteen supporters appeared at a Kansas City immigration hearing in September, prepared to ask a federal judge to let Inzunza stay. The judge instead postponed the hearing until February 2007 because of a case backlog, but Inzunza’s supporters suspect judicial sympathy played a role.

Even Gregory Gagne, spokesman for the Justice Department’s executive office for immigration review in Washington, reacted with surprise. He said the delay was longer than normal.

In an interview in the cramped apartment he shares with his wife, Suzy, and sons Francisco Javier, 17, and Anthony, 10, Inzunza said he has no regrets about helping Saline County prosecutors convict Juan Antonio Rodriguez of stabbing a housemate to death.

“I did it because it was the right thing to do,” he said. “They needed me.”

Inzunza said he realized he would have to testify in court and give his real name under oath, so he preemptively told police of his illegal status.

With a growing Hispanic population lured to the town of 12,000 by jobs at a pair of meatpacking plants, plenty of non-Spanish speakers needed Inzunza. He helped the children of immigrants enroll in school, calmed mothers in premature labor at Fitzgibbon Hospital and ran out of the house in the middle of the night to help state troopers at an Interstate 70 accident scene. All for free, and always without complaint.

“Paco is not only an asset to our school, but to the city of Marshall as well,” wrote Derek Lark, an assistant principal at the middle school where Inzunza works as a custodian, in a letter to the immigration judge. “We would be worse off without him here. He is the type of person we need more of in America.”

Inzunza came to the United States in 1991, drifting on an inner tube across the Rio Grande near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. His wife and their oldest son had arrived in America on a temporary tourist visa, and the family moved to Marshall in 1993.

“This is home,” said Suzy Inzunza. “They accept us.”

To remain in the United States, Inzunza must prove his deportation would cause an “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” on his youngest son, who was born in Marshall and is an American citizen.

“It doesn’t matter how good a person he is, or what a difference he’s made in the state of Missouri,” said Angela Ferguson, Inzunza’s attorney.

Inzunza said he is grateful, and humbled, by the extensive support from his neighbors.

“You can live 20 years in one community, and if you don’t do anything, nobody knows about you,” he said. “The people have been so supportive for one reason … they know I’ve been doing the right things for the community.”

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