As the national immigrant debate hit Beaufort County Thursday, the mayors of Beaufort and Hilton Head Island sympathized with local strikers, while Bluffton’s mayor walked a more cautious line.
The discussion was stirred after some Beaufort County immigrants went on strike as part of a nationwide call through social media, leaving some local businesses closed and others short-staffed, as well as empty seats at area schools.
“It is not necessarily a bad idea to take a day off and show that the dishes may not be washed or the lawns may not be mowed, because they are an integral part of our workforce,” Beaufort mayor Billy Keyserling told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
Bluffton mayor Lisa Sulka said she had not paid much attention to the strike.
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“We all have to work and pay the bills,” she said.
Hilton Head mayor David Bennett said it is important to listen when any portion of the population takes actions such as striking.
“Obviously the people who are striking today don’t feel like they are valued, and they are striving to be heard,” he said. “It is incumbent upon all of us, especially leaders, to listen and work to meet the needs of everyone who makes up the community in a way that is equitable for everyone.”
Keyserling and Bennett both said immigrants are an integral part of the area’s economy.
“Most of the immigrants that I know of are Hispanic, and they come here to find opportunity,” Keyserling said. “And they have filled gaping holes in our workforce. We have become dependent on them, and they are part of what the American Dream is.”
Immigrants make up a “significant” component of the Hilton Head workforce, Bennett said.
“Immigrants were a part of the workforce that cleaned up after Hurricane Matthew, and we have Hispanic companies doing our landscaping,” he said.
Sulka had a different view on the workforce point.
“Everybody works really hard, the people living in our town, whatever our status,” Sulka said. “Our next generation doesn’t look at at color; they see one population.”
Sulka said the immigration discussion should be at the national level.
“I hate that all of this from a federal level is affecting our town,” she said. “I see the media scaring these people more than anything.”
Bennett was more supportive of having the discussion at the local level.
“The conversation should be around housing, the workforce and transportation systems for your workforce to come and provide these services,” he said. “I myself have been working hard to listen to the Hispanic population prior to this.”
Sulka said some people in the local community have been reaching out to her about the issue.
She suggested those interested in the issue attend a community forum, sponsored by by La Isla and the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition, on March 3 at the Technical College of the Lowcountry at 921 Ribaut Road in Beaufort.
“We have not decided as a town if we want to go and be present yet,” she said. “This little town cannot change national policy. I don’t know if I will go; I just found out about it five minutes ago via Facebook, and it is my birthday weekend.”
Keyserling said he hadn’t heard about the event but would go if invited. Bennett said he had recently heard of the forum and was supportive of the idea.
“I think things like that are very important because they open up lines of communication,” Bennett said. “That might be part of what is lacking.”