KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — The National Immigration Law Center, Southern Poverty Law Center and the law firm of Sherrard, Roe, Voigt & Harbison filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of seven workers affected by the April 2018 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid at the Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant in Bean Station, a news release from the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) said.
The lawsuit alleges that when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detained about 100 Latino workers, they violated their rights against illegal seizures and to equal protection under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the release said.
"ICE agents detained every worker who looked Latino in the plant without regard to citizenship or documentation, a clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Many workers weren't even asked about documentation until hours into the raid. By then, many had already been traumatized, handcuffed, and denied communication with attorneys or family members — or access to sanitary facilities or critical medication — and taken to a holding facility," TIRRC alleged in the release.
"Federal agents disregarded workers' Fourth Amendment rights, used excessive force, and racially profiled Latino individuals when they descended on the Southeastern Provision meat packing plant," the release continued. "The U.S. Constitution protects against government overreach and abusive conduct."
One of the plaintiffs in the case, Isabel Zelaya, said in the release that although she had offered to show authorities documentation proving she had a right to work in the country, she was still handcuffed, detained and taken to the armory during the raid. She was then released several hours later.
"I am part of this lawsuit because I want justice for myself and my coworkers who were denied our constitutional rights, as well as our humanity," Zelaya said.
She explained Tennessee is her home, having lived here for 12 years.
"My family is here. My friends are here. I have land here. This is where my dreams have taken root," she said in the release.
A separate news release from SPLC said the raid was the largest workplace immigration raid in almost a decade.
The owner of Southeastern Provision, James Brantley, agreed to plead guilty to charges stemming from the ICE raid in August 2018, including tax evasion, wire fraud and employing undocumented immigrants.
A plea agreement filed in August detailed the methods Brantley used to avoid paying nearly $1.3 million in taxes, hire at least 150 undocumented immigrants and withdraw a total of $25 million in cash to pay them in large weekly amounts from a local bank for several years.
Ten of those employees were federally charged for questionable immigration status. According to the TIRRC, 54 people were sent to an ICE detention facility at the time of the raid.
"The complaint filed today addresses the brutality the workers themselves faced at the hands of agents, but the human costs of this unconscionable abuse of power extend much further. When a raid of this scale happens in our communities, it's like a bomb goes off," Stephanie Teatro, the co-executive director of TIRRC, said in the TIRRC release.
"It is deeply disruptive to local communities, leaving children stranded without their parents, terrifying entire communities, and devastating local economies," Teatro explained in the release. "We hope that this complaint will bring some measure of justice for the workers whose rights were violated in a raid that was designed to instill fear in immigrant communities, no matter what the cost would be to the plaintiffs, their coworkers, or this community."
Meredith Stewart, a senior supervising attorney for SPLC, said in the TIRRC release that the raid was an overreach by law enforcement.
"We as a nation have a shared set of ideals, rooted in the Bill of Rights: we have a right to be free from racial profiling and unlawful arrests. If we are not willing to uphold those ideals for everyone in this country, then we are all at risk of losing our rights. We look forward to our clients having their day in court," she said.