It was shortly after noon Tuesday when Eduardo Leyva tapped Eric Esquivel on the back.
“I really appreciate this, as the son of an immigrant,” Leyva told Esquivel. “I’m really scared.”
Leyva, 18, lives nearby and had seen a group gathering along S.C. 46 near the Bluffton post office. He thought it was an anti-immigrant rally. He was nervous but decided to investigate.
Leyva was relieved to find that the more than 100 people holding American flags and handwritten signs were not there to protest undocumented immigrants.
They were there to express discontent with a recent request from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office to reinstate its partnership with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security under the 287(g) program.
The program’s task force model would allow specially trained deputies — under the supervision of ICE — to investigate, apprehend and detain immigrants who are in the United States illegally. President Donald Trump is asking for its revival.
“For any immigrant or Hispanic to see this,” Leyva said about the rally, “it makes them feel much closer to the community.”
Esquivel, publisher of La Isla magazine on Hilton Head Island, had just addressed the crowd, which numbered around 80 shortly before noon when the event was scheduled to start, when he spoke with Leyva.
The lunchtime rally was one of two Tuesday organized by the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition, Lowcountry Indivisible and Beaufort S.C. Indivisible to protest Sheriff P.J. Tanner and the 287(g) program. The other, held outside the Sheriff’s Office’s headquarters in Beaufort at the same time, drew about 75 protesters.
Tanner held a news conference around 2 p.m. at the Hilton Head Island station of the Sheriff’s Office.
Shortly before the conference, a small group of the Bluffton protesters delivered to Tanner a folder stuffed with dozens of letters expressing concerns about the proposed task force. They also asked if they could attend the conference, and Tanner let them. They were allowed to ask questions during the event.
Tanner took questions about the nature of the task force, its functions, how it would be funded and how concerns such as racial profiling would be addressed. Regarding the latter issue, he said racial profiling would not happen in his department. He said there had been “zero” complaints about 287(g) when it was operational in the county from 2008 to 2012.
And he said the program was successful and “worked exactly how it should have worked” — the task force had been the subject of “studies” that indicated as much, he said.
When asked specifically what those studies found and whether he would make the data available to the public, Tanner said, “I don’t have it with me here, but I’m sure I can get my hands on the majority of it. Hopefully it’s still archived with Homeland Security. ... Hopefully it’s still there.”
As the conference ended, Tanner said the day’s protests and the concerns raised had not changed his perspective. “My mind’s not changing about my request,” he said, referring to the letter he wrote to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly requesting 287(g) be revived.
He asked the protesters — Esquivel, Lowcountry Immigration Coalition’s George Kanuck, Lowcountry Indivisible’s Lisa Lemen and Bluffton immigration attorney Aimee Deverall — to stay afterward for a closed-door discussion, to which members of the press were not invited.
“I’m very eager to talk with him and dialogue right now,” Deverall said. She hoped to learn how specifically the sheriff would conduct operations. She worried about undocumented immigrants, those not committing crimes, being caught up in “raids” targeted at suspected criminals.
Lemen felt like Tanner “has an obligation” to show evidence of the program’s past performance in Beaufort County.
“I just think that there have to be the hard stats delivered,” Lemen said. “I’ve found very little evidence that the program was successful (nationwide),” she said, rattling off studies by the American Civil Liberties Union and various federal departments.
During the Bluffton rally, Lemen said a Lowcountry Indivisible member did a headcount at the height of the event and counted about 160 protesters.
Blaine Lotz, chairman of the Beaufort County Democratic Party, also spoke at the event, as did Rabbi Brad Bloom of Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head, Dr. Doug Fletcher of First Presbyterian Church on Hilton Head and a number of protesters who shared stories and called for Tanner to be voted out of office in 2018.
A voice from the crowd yelled out that they would find someone to run against him.
Esquivel drew applause at the protest when he challenged Tanner’s previous comments that the 287(g) program had actually improved relations with the immigrant community when it was first activated in the county between 2008 and 2012.
“I disagree with that 100 percent,” he said over a loudspeaker.
Maureen Tilton of Okatie was among the protesters. Her father had emigrated to the United States from Cuba in the 1950s. She held a sign identifying her as the daughter of an immigrant.
“I feel strongly that Sheriff Tanner’s new policies will negatively impact the hard-working immigrants in our community that we depend on,” she said.
Another reason she came to protest during her lunch hour was that she has noticed an uptick in anti-immigrant sentiment locally, and it worries her.
She said, for instance, that a man has been harassing her friend, a Bluffton woman who is here legally from Honduras. The man showed up outside the woman’s workplace and started taking pictures of her and her license plate.
“He started screaming ‘Immigrants! Go home!’ ” Tilton said.
On Tuesday, the protesters were met with some thumbs-down from some drivers passing and a number of honks.
Leyva, the U.S.-born son of immigrants, has relatives who are undocumented. He said the immigrant community is “constantly living in fear.”
Leyva is a student at TCL on a scholarship, he said. He hopes to be a teacher, maybe fifth grade. He participates in the teacher cadet program at Bluffton High School, he said, where he’s learning the basics of leading a classroom.
He wondered why Tanner had singled out the immigration enforcement issue. From Leyva’s perspective, his town, Bluffton, seems to be thriving, and there doesn’t seem to be a crime “crisis,” he said.
“You feel singled out,” he said.
The protest took place near the Bluffton post office, where more immigrants have been going to get passports for their U.S.-born children recently, Deverall said.
“There’s a real fear that their children are going to be left behind,” Deverall said, explaining undocumented parents’ anxiety of being deported as Trump continues to lay out his immigration and border security policies, in line with campaign promises to crack down on illegal immigration and ramp up deportation efforts.
In addition to obtaining passports, immigrants are working with local attorneys to figure out power of attorney and guardianship in case they’re deported. They’re trying to find relatives who can take care of their kids if they’re forced to leave the country.
The groups protesting in Bluffton on Tuesday originally tried to assemble on Hilton Head Island but abandoned those efforts because of what organizers called “roadblocks” from the Town of Hilton Head and a “summons” from Tanner’s office to meet ahead of the protest. Organizers felt Tanner was trying to intimidate them. Tanner said he was trying to have an “educational moment” with them ahead of the rally to learn what they planned to protest and how knowledgeable they were about 287(g).
Kanuck said Tuesday morning that he didn’t expect see many members of the immigrant community at the protest.
Indeed, the crowd that gathered were mostly white and of retirement age.
“It’s Tuesday,” Kanuck said of the immigrants. “They’re working.”
And immigrants — legal and documented — are afraid, he said, something he worries Tanner “doesn’t grasp.”
“The sheriff is not a bad guy, he just has a distorted view,” Kanuck said, explaining that Tanner either didn’t understand “or is in denial” about immigrants’ fears during the county’s first iteration of 287(g), and how fear has resurfaced with the sheriff’s push to revive the task force.