Workers Snared in Tennessee Raid Sue ICE Agents

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) – Seven slaughterhouse workers who were caught up in a workplace immigration raid in Tennessee last year filed a class action Thursday against the federal agents who carried it out, claiming they were racially profiled and arrested using a warrant that only authorized a search for documents.

On the morning of April 5, 2018, helicopters thrummed overhead as federal agents blocked off the road to the Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse in the small, rural town of Bean Station in east Tennessee. Bringing bags of zip-tie handcuffs, body armor and drawn guns, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested about 100 people.  

Because it was the first time ICE conducted a mass workplace raid in almost a decade, immigration activists in Tennessee said it marked the return of that kind of enforcement.

Thursday’s complaint filed in Knoxville federal court is “the first lawsuit challenging a work-site immigration raid under the Trump administration,” Melissa Keaney, staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, told reporters in a phone call.

“The U.S. Constitution protects individuals from this kind of law enforcement overreach,” the 33-page complaint states. “The law is clear that seizures based entirely on race or ethnicity, arrests without probable cause, and the use of excessive force are prohibited by the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.”

Attorneys with the NILC, Southern Poverty Law Center and Nashville-based law firm Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison filed the class action against nine named agents and 30 John Doe defendants.  

It says the ICE agents violated and conspired to violate the plaintiffs’ civil rights to equal protection under the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause on the basis of their “actual or apparent race and ethnicity.”

All defendants are sued in their individual capacities.

The Latino workers are asking the court for declaratory relief and compensatory and punitive damages.

Representatives from ICE did not immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

Plaintiff Martha Pulido, communicating through an interpreter, said in the phone call with reporters she was working on the kill floor of the plant when the raid began. She said she saw an officer punch Geronimo Guerrero, a co-plaintiff in the suit.

Pulido said ICE agents handcuffed Latino workers and forbade them from speaking to each other but allowed white workers at the slaughterhouse to walk around and smoke.

“It is incredibly difficult for me since the raid,” Pulido said during the phone call. “I’m part of this lawsuit along with my co-workers because it is important for me to speak out. I want to be able to know that they have rights. I want to try and do something so the abuses that happened to us that day in the plant do not happen to other workers in this country.”

The complaint further states ICE agents violated the workers’ Fourth Amendment rights when they used excessive force and arrested them without a proper warrant.

While agents had a warrant to search Southeastern Provision, “the officers were assisting with the execution of an Internal Revenue Service search warrant for financial documents related to the alleged crimes of the plant’s owner, James Brantley,” the lawsuit states. “However, the officers’ goal that day was far more extensive than what the search warrant authorized: They planned to detain and arrest every worker in the plant who was or appeared to be Latino.”

In September, Brantley pleaded guilty to tax and wire fraud, as well as employing people in the country without legal permission. While he told the federal government he employed 44 people, according to prosecutors in the Eastern District of Tennessee, federal agents discovered he employed 104 undocumented workers.

The NILC’s Keaney and Meredith Stewart, senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, declined to describe the immigration status of the workers bringing the case at the time of the raid. They believe immigration status is not relevant to the lawsuit.

“ICE targeted workers who were being exploited in the workplace,” Stewart said in the phone call. “This means this raid has repercussions that go beyond the devastation it caused to families, children and communities. 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.”

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