This story was written by Quintin Ellison, originally published in The Sylva Herald.
As federal policies on immigration harden, the local rumor mill churns ever faster.
Federal agents and local law enforcement officers reportedly arrested a Hispanic man on immigration violations at Sylva’s Walmart Plaza.
Local law enforcement say the story is untrue. Police officers did arrest someone at Walmart that day on warrants out of Swain County, but the charges were not connected to immigration violations, according to Sylva Assistant Chief Tammy Hooper.
The Police Department and Jackson County Sheriff’s Office say federal law enforcement have not contacted them in connection with President Donald Trump’s stepped-up deportation policies.
Still, the rumors fly.
Second-hand reports are circulating, of someone at the Walmart Plaza identifying himself as an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent before demanding documentation from local Hispanic men. Is it ICE? Someone posing as an agent? Or just one more untethered rumor?
The federal government’s new guidelines vastly expand who can be punished for immigration violations. Obama-era policies reserved deportation for those convicted of serious crimes or people considered threats to national security. Now, smaller infractions could lead to arrest and removal.
Supporters say the new administration is making U.S. law meaningful by punishing illegal entry and rewarding those who follow correct procedures.
For Jackson County’s immigrants, the new guidelines mean living with almost perpetual uncertainty and anxiety.
“I’m not afraid for myself. If they send me back to Mexico, I’ll be OK,” said one unauthorized immigrant, Maria. Speaking through an interpreter, she asked that her full name not be used for fear of deportation.
“What I worry about is my children,” the 10-year Jackson County resident said. “What would happen to them if I was sent away? Who would care for them?”
Maria’s husband is also an unauthorized immigrant. She cleans houses. He works in construction. The couple’s youngest child is a citizen, the oldest one is not.
Nationally, an estimated 11 million immigrants live in the United States lacking authorization, some 400,000 in North Carolina and about 2,000 in Jackson County, according to Department of Homeland Security estimates in 2011 and U.S. Census counts.
The fear of deportation has gripped the local immigrant community, Vecinos Director Amy Schmidt said.
Headquartered at Western Carolina University, Vecinos provides medical care to migrant farmworkers and their families, primarily in Jackson, Haywood, Macon and Swain counties.
“Most of our families have mixed levels of immigration status, with one or both parents undocumented, but children who are U.S. citizens,” Schmidt said. “There are people who are afraid to leave their homes. The biggest fear is about the children. Who is going to care for these kids if their parents are deported?”
By default, Vecinos, with 750-enrolled patients, is the primary source of information for local Hispanic families grappling with the new – and for immigrants, their relatives and friends – the frightening realities of Trump-era deportation policies.
“Our mission is primary care, but at this point, we are recognizing that health is bigger than the body,” Schmidt said. “We are the go-to in this community.”
She said Vecinos staff members are urging the nonprofit’s clients to develop emergency-safety plans. These include signing legal forms to make sure, if the parents are picked up by ICE agents, that someone has legal responsibility for their children.
Saturday, as part of a Vecinos medical clinic in Cullowhee, Noele Aabye, the Justice for All project coordinator for Pisgah Legal Services, answered patients’ legal questions as best she could, given the fluidity of the situation.
“We don’t have answers to everything that’s happening,” Aabye said. “But we are trying to reach out to communities where we work to remind people of their constitutional rights and to dispel misinformation.”
Like Schmidt, she said the overwhelming concern she hears is from parents who are worried about their children.
William Shelton, a farmer in Whittier and former county commissioner, describes himself as “outraged and saddened” by the new Trump policies. He employs five immigrants full-time and relies on contract crews during the harvest season.
“I have a 30-plus year history of working with them daily, and we have over that time developed a symbiotic relationship of mutual respect and dependency,” he said. “They have taught me a great deal. And I have learned very much to admire their culture.”
Trump has said undocumented workers from Mexico are “lower-skilled workers with less education who compete directly against vulnerable American workers.”
Shelton said that’s not true. “I have never had enough ‘local’ people show enough interest in farm work to actually complete the tasks at hand,” he said. “I don’t know a single farmer of any commercial scale who could survive in business without these workers.”