Local activists planning to protest Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner’s desire to revive a controversial immigration-law-enforcement program said they were met with resistance from the Town of Hilton Head and felt intimidated by the sheriff when seeking permission to hold the event next week.
Mitch Siegel of Lowcountry Indivisible said the group was planning a “peaceful and respectful” rally on Tuesday afternoon against Tanner’s initiative to reinstate the 287(g) Program, which allows specially trained deputies to enforce federal immigration law — including investigation, apprehension or detention of immigrants who are in the United States illegally — under Immigration and Customs Enforcement supervision.
When the group called the town this week to inquire about whether a permit would be required for the gathering, Siegel said, they were met with “roadblocks.”
Town attorney Brian Hulbert, he said, repeatedly gave the group unclear guidance on the town’s policy for public gatherings and seemed to add more stipulations throughout their conversations.
After that, he said, conversations with Hulbert turned “quite nasty.”
In addition, Hulbert alerted the sheriff to their event before a written request could be filed, resulting in a request from the sheriff for a personal meeting to discuss “what they planned to do with this rally,” which the group interpreted as an intimidation tactic and an infringement on their First Amendment rights.
Hulbert said that informing Tanner’s office about upcoming protests was part of his standard procedure.
He also said he typically informs the Sheriff’s Office about the nature of any protest requests.
Tanner said he reached out to Lowcountry Indivisible simply to have a conversation.
“It would have been an educational opportunity, not only for me but for the person who was planning the protest,” he said. The goal? To learn what the group was protesting. To see if the group understood what it was protesting. To ask would-be protesters if they had a full understanding of 287(g).
When asked how he thought the public would perceive his office contacting the group ahead of the protest and requesting a meeting, Tanner said: “I don’t know. Didn’t put that in my considerations. Why would I need to consider how the public would feel about the opportunity to meet with someone who’s planning a protest, and use that meeting as an educational moment?”
Tanner said he’d never heard complaints about the 287(g) task force when it was up and running for about four years until the end of 2012. He worried that “fake news” — articles that described February ICE operations that resulted in detainments across the Southeast as “raids,” for example — fueled people’s concerns about the task force he hopes to revive.
Tanner says the 287(g) task force will allow his office the ability to conduct its own immigration enforcement investigations and act on ICE tips, and give the office access to another computer system that will speed up criminal investigations. His deputies will be able to know who, exactly, is in the community, he said. Enforcement activities would only be targeted at serious criminals, he said.
Opponents such as Bluffton immigration attorney Aimee Deverall worry it could lead to racial profiling and damage relationships between law enforcement and the immigrant community.
Tanner said he’s met with would-be protesters in the past before assemblies, but this is the first time in his career he can remember a group protesting local law enforcement.
Nevertheless, Siegel declined to meet with Tanner.
The group, Siegel said, is abandoning its effort to get town approval and is instead considering a rally on private property or in Bluffton.
A similar rally against the Sheriff’s Office is also planned for Tuesday afternoon in Beaufort, but Alison Davidow of Beaufort SC Indivisible said their group has not had a problem with the city or the Sheriff’s Office.
Personnel in the city clerk’s office were helpful and gave tips about filling out the materials, she said. As of around 2 p.m. Thursday, Beaufort City Clerk Ivette Burgess said the permit was likely to be approved — it was just waiting for the city manager to sign off.
A permit to protest on Hilton Head isn’t necessary, according to Hulbert. There are no official guidelines and there is no application. There are also no instructions on the town’s website.
If you’re planning to protest on private property (including sidewalks), you have to have permission from the property owner, he said. If you plan to protest on public property, such as a parcel of land owned by the town, you have to submit a request in writing to town officials. And if you want to protest on public sidewalks, no written request is required, he said.
Hulbert said he explained this to the rally’s organizers. He said he can’t remember a written request being denied in his 11 1/2 years on the job. He did say that sometimes the town steers groups toward other locations, where ease of parking and pedestrian safety are less of a concern.
Lisa Lemen with Lowcountry Indivisible had a couple of phone conversations this week with Hulbert and said she found the process to be “frustrating” and “discouraging” because there was nothing in writing. She said it lacked transparency and could be “discriminatory” if town officials denied use of public parcels because of their political leanings.
“There’s nothing in writing,” she said, “so they can pick and choose. ... Depending on their politics, they can decide how difficult or easy it would be.”
Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston.
Reporter Ashley Reese contributed to this story.