Last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested nearly 300 people across North Carolina. Those arrests are still sending shockwaves throughout Western North Carolina’s Latinx community.
Efren Rivera Garcia is tending to a line of customers, eager to purchase a bag of his savory chicharrones, Mexican pork rinds. They’re hot out of the deep fryer and have a satisfying crunch.
Garcia works this stand every weekend here at Smiley’s Flea Market, in Fletcher. Garcia says while it’s busy on this particular afternoon, it wasn’t like this a few weeks ago.
“Nos bajó la venta, la verdad, nos bajó,” Garcia said.
"Our sales went down, for sure,” he said.
Garcia is referring to the weekend in early February that followed 270 arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in North Carolina. An ICE spokesperson says most of those arrests took place in Mecklenburg County.
“Porque pues la gente, los hispanos como nosotros, porque anda la ICE acá, por eso no salen igual. Tienen miedo de que. No vayan por nada. Agarrar y eso.”
Nevertheless, he says, “when ICE comes, the Hispanics don’t go out. They are afraid they’ll be taken.”
Across the way, Ernie Roberge is selling used hardware tools and equipment from the back of his truck. Roberge travels here from Blairsville, Georgia every few weeks to sell his wares. He says, his sales have not been affected.
“It hasn’t really that I’ve seen, but I’m sure it has at this flea market, I would say so,” Roberge said.
The majority of booths here are run by Latinx business-owners. There are stands selling a range of goods -- from quinceanera dresses to fresh tamales -- standing side-by-side with antique shops, one emblazoned with a Confederate flag.
This mashup of Central America and Western North Carolina offers a glimpse of the demographics of surrounding Henderson County. It has a Latinx population of more than 10 percent, which makes for a higher concentration than neighboring Buncombe County. Here’s Henderson County Sheriff Lowell Griffin.
“We have folks that are here that are here leading productive lives that are really looking for a better life for their families, and all of the sudden they’re afraid to go to work,” Griffin said. We’ve got children that are afraid to go to school.”
The newly-elected sheriff says his officers don’t arrest individuals on the basis of immigration status. He says that’s the job of federal officials.
“When that happens, I don’t even know when that happens. They come into our communities, they’re operating off of federal authority. We have absolutely no part in that process,” Griffin said.
But the Henderson County Sheriff’s Department does, however, participate in a 287g agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That allows some of his officers to question and interrogate jail inmates suspected of being in the country illegally.
That agreement is up for renewal in June. Sheriff Griffin says he hasn’t made a decision whether to continue collaborating with ICE because it puts the burden on his already understaffed jail and on local taxpayers.
“I support, as a whole, what ICE does. I think the issue is, they don’t do a very good job with PR. They don’t do a good job of explaining exactly what’s going on,” Griffin said. “Then the folks with agendas create false narratives in our communities, and this drives a panic throughout the Latino community.”
Those fears have real implications for businesses and families in the county.
Back at Smiley’s Flea Market, twelve-year-old Elizabeth Bautista is watching over her family’s fruit stand. She says their business was also affected by the recent ICE arrests.
“Yeah it was a lot quieter. You could say it was technically empty here,” Bautista said.
She says, even a few vendors didn’t show up that weekend.
“Because people, they get scared, they don’t want to come out anymore, so they’ll stay home. Then here, it decreases. There’s not really a bunch of sales, there’s not as much profit,” Bautista said.
Bautista says her parents are worried about how long those fears will persist. But she says, she’ll still keep coming out to support her parents and her community.