BEAN STATION, Tenn. (WATE) – The Southern Poverty Law Center along with the National Immigration Law Center has filed suit on behalf of all workers who were arrested and detained during the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in April 2018 at a Grainger County slaughterhouse.
This is the first lawsuit to be filed challenging the worksite immigration raid under the Trump Administration – alleging ICE agents engaged in racial profiling, illegal searches and arrests; therefore claiming to have violated the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
“What happened in April of last year in East Tennessee was illegal,” said Meredith Stewart with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “ICE agents stormed the meatpacking plant looking for Latino workers without knowing their identities or immigration status. They detained those workers solely based on the basis of their race, using intrusive, militaristic and even violent measures. This is law enforcement overreach plain and simple.”
Lawyers described that morning, as longtime employees at Southeastern Provision had just clocked in for their shift as normal.
“They had been settling into their morning routine when dozens of ICE agents suddenly stormed the plant in a military-style operation,” said Melissa Keaney with the National Immigration Law Center. “They secured the perimeter, blocked every exit – and then armed agents flooded into the facility while shouting at the workers to freeze.”
“One of my coworkers tripped and fell and officers, threw their guns on her – I saw another officer push another group of workers and another officer punched one of my coworkers,” explained former employee at Southeastern Provision, Martha Pulido, who is one of seven workers being represented in the suit.
On the day of the raid, Pulido was working on the kill floor.
“I was handcuffed without being able to make a phone call. They didn’t let us speak to each other. It was a deeply distressing environment,” explained Pulido. “I also noticed that the white workers who worked at the plant were outside too but they were not in handcuffs, they were free to move around, some were even smoking cigarettes.”
“On the other hand, I was taken to the armory, my personal items were confiscated, I was fingerprinted, and they detained me for nearly 14 hours,” Pulido said. “I showed up every day determined to do good work despite the dangerous conditions at the plant and how little we were paid.”
Stewart, with the SPLC, added that, “Focusing immigration enforcement efforts on low wage workers will only drive them farther into the shadows, making them more vulnerable to exploitation and less likely to complain.”
WATE reached out to ICE. Policy keeps them from commenting on this lawsuit, but a spokesperson wanted to point out that just because they cannot comment, does not mean the agency thinks a suit has any merit. Spokesperson Bryan Cox sent in this statement in response,
“The Southeastern Provision case was always a federal criminal investigation that also resulted in administrative immigration arrests. To describe the operation as an immigration enforcement action is inaccurate; it was a federal criminal investigation that also resulted in immigration arrests.”
Cox insists ICE is equally focused on going after people who seek employment unlawfully and the employers who knowingly hire them.
James Brantley, owner of Southeastern Provision LLC., pleaded guilty in September to two counts of failure to collect taxes, one count of employing illegal aliens and one count of wire fraud.
Brantley was scheduled for sentencing this month, that’s been pushed back to June.
The raid was conducted on Southeastern Provision in Bean Station on April 5, 2018. A total of 97 people were found who were subject to removal from the United States. Ten of those were arrested on federal criminal charges, one on state charges and 86 on administrative charges.
SPLC says Immigrations and Customs Enforcement did not have a warrant for the workers who were detained, but instead the warrant was based on IRS claims of tax evasion.
More online: Read the full lawsuit
The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition also spoke during the call, describing the impact of the raid on nearly 600 children who missed school the next day.
They told of teachers who rode the school bus home with kids out of fear that there would be no one home waiting for them, and of children still suffering from night terrors as a result of the raid, as well as financial impacts.