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You are here: Home » GreenFaith in the Media » Press Clips » Sheriff, Business Owners Discuss Immigration, Labor Force

Sheriff, Business Owners Discuss Immigration, Labor Force

By Gary Glancy

Episcopal Church of the Holy Family in North Carolina hosted a forum on immigration and farmworkers' rights.


MILLS RIVER – Henderson County Sheriff Charlie McDonald and one of his immigration officers said Tuesday they are not targeting illegal immigrants for deportation, and that the department is sensitive to the agricultural industry’s reliance on migrant workers.

McDonald and Capt. Michael Cox took part in a panel discussion Tuesday night during an immigration forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters at Holy Family Episcopal Church.

It is one of several forums put on this year by the League, which has called for “major and comprehensive” reform of “outdated” immigration laws that threaten a significant portion of the workforce for many Western North Carolina farmers.

Following pro-immigration reform comments by longtime county apple grower Kenny Barnwell and Bert Lemkes, co-owner of Van Wingerden International, which owns and operates 37 acres of commercial greenhouses in Mills River, McDonald said he agreed with “98 percent” of their statements.

“No one has to tell me that a large percentage of our success in the future is going to depend on how we handle agriculture,” McDonald said. “I certainly wholeheartedly agree with and support a migrant workforce here.”

McDonald said the biggest challenge for his force is working within a system that enables officers to identify criminal suspects through proper identification, and, “At this point, we don’t have that, unfortunately.”

Cox added that there is “a lot of misinformation out there” about the Sheriff’s Office’s handling of illegal immigrants because of its relationship with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its 287 (g) program, which allows state and local law enforcement entities to receive delegated authority for immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions. When the Rev. Robert Lundquist of Holy Family Episcopal Church asked McDonald and Cox whether businesses are raided with the specific intent of deporting illegal immigrants, McDonald said, “That does not happen.”

Responding to a question from the audience, Cox said the types of criminal offenses subject to deportation for illegal immigrants are typically felonies that are subject to federal prosecution.

“As far as someone being here administratively, with no criminal history, I don’t know of anybody being removed (from the country) for just being here illegally, as far as our program is concerned,” Cox said.

Still, Lemke reiterated what he’s said at other League-sponsored immigration forums, that inadequate immigration laws make it difficult for migrant workers to obtain work visas to perform honest labor for area farms that others won’t do.

“Those that are willing to do the work fail the system, but many of those that pass the system fail to do the work,” Lemkes said.

He added that about 70 percent of the work in the agricultural industry is performed by undocumented workers, and that American jobs are at stake when a company like his cannot find the labor to perform the “often back-breaking, repetitive and sweaty work” that’s needed.

“These are honest, hard-working and loyal folks who have come here only seeking work and better pay,” Lemkes said. “This is not about paying the lowest wages. Our starting pay is way above minimum wage, includes benefits, and everyone’s pay goes through legal withholdings through the government. This is also not about taking jobs from American workers. Even in a down economy, it’s difficult trying to find workers willing to thrive at these jobs.” Barnwell agreed, saying the majority of the Hispanic population in the county – like that of the general population – are a “good, hard-working, honest group of people,” and that “we need to find us a way that we can have the legal workforce we need to keep agriculture growing in Henderson County.”

Reach Glancy at 828-694-7860 or

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