Workers who were detained when ICE raided a Tennessee meatpacking plant last year have filed a class-action lawsuit seeking damages and alleging that agents used racial slurs and excessive force.
The seven plaintiffs in the case claim that authorities illegally targeted Latino workers when they stormed into the Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant in April 2018.
"They detained those workers solely on the basis of their race, using intrusive, militaristic and even violent measures. This is law enforcement overreach, plain and simple," said Meredith Stewart, a senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center and one of the workers' lawyers.
"They forcefully seized and arrested approximately 100 Latino workers. In the process, the officers berated the workers with racial slurs, punched one worker in the face, and shoved firearms in the faces of many others," the lawsuit alleges. "Meanwhile, the officers did not detain the plant's white workers or subject them to the same intrusive and aggressive treatment and prolonged detention that the Latino workers experienced."
Melissa Keaney, a staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center who's also on the workers' legal team, told reporters Thursday that the lawsuit was the first to challenge a large-scale worksite enforcement operation in the United States.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court Thursday against nearly 40 named and unnamed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and officers.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox declined to comment on the lawsuit due to the agency's policy of not commenting on pending litigation.
"In general," he said, "ICE activities are conducted in full compliance with federal law and agency policy."
Cox noted that the operation was the result of a federal criminal investigation.
"To describe the operation as an immigration enforcement action is inaccurate; it was a federal criminal investigation that also resulted in immigration arrests," he said.
Southeastern Provision is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
ICE has stepped up worksite enforcement operations since President Donald Trump took office.
"When we find you at a worksite, we're no longer going to turn our heads," former ICE director Thomas Homan said in 2017. "We'll go after the employer who knowingly hires an illegal alien ... but we're always going to arrest a person who is here illegally. That is our job."
Nearly 100 workers were detained in the April 2018 raid in Bean Station, Tennessee. At the time, it was the largest worksite enforcement operation in nearly a decade. Since then, other large operations have been reported, including June raids at an Ohio garden center and an Ohio meat supplier.
In court documents filed at the time of the Tennessee raid, an IRS special agent said the plant's owners were under investigation for allegedly evading taxes, filing false federal tax returns and hiring immigrants who were in the country illegally.
Owner James Brantley pleaded guilty last year to federal charges of tax fraud, wire fraud and bringing in and harboring aliens, according to court records. He's scheduled to be sentenced in June.
On a call with reporters announcing the lawsuit Thursday, attorneys declined to discuss the immigration status of the plaintiffs at the time of the raid.
"We don't believe the immigration status of any of our plaintiffs has relevance to the claims that we have pled here, and that's not something that we're discussing," Keaney said.
Immigrant advocates said the Tennessee raid had a devastating impact not only on workers, but also on their neighbors and others in the community. As CNN reported at the time, more than 500 children missed school the next day.
Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said many people are still reeling.
"When a raid of this scale happens in a community," she said, "it's like a bomb goes off."
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