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SPLC lawsuit: ICE raid at Tennessee slaughterhouse violated workers’ constitutional rights

On a quiet, chilly morning in April 2018, Alma drove through the verdant Tennessee hillsides to the ramshackle slaughterhouse where she had been working on the kill floor for more than two years.

At Southeastern Provision LLC in Bean Station, Tennessee, workers moved swiftly, killing hundreds – sometimes thousands – of cattle each hour. More volume meant more money for their employer, and Alma, along with her co-workers, was doing the work that no one else was willing to do; work that no one even wanted to talk about.

Alma endured long hours on the kill floor, operating automated machinery to stun the cows between the eyes, then chaining their legs so the animals could be lifted to a trolley. There, workers slit the animals’ hearts, leaving the cows to bleed out, amid the blood and bones left over from other dead cattle.

The job often scared Alma, as it did most everyone. Many of her co-workers – whose last names are being withheld to protect their identities – were injured at Southeastern Provision. They performed grueling tasks for little pay, all the while exhausted. But for Alma, the work helped to pay the bills, despite its horrific – and perilous – nature.

Just outside the plant at around 9 a.m. on April 5, 2018, Alberto, one of Alma’s co-workers, was moving pallets. He, too, was tired from the back-breaking labor the slaughterhouse demanded of him. Like Alma, Alberto was poorly paid and overworked. But he, too, needed a job.

As Alberto operated the forklift, he was startled by the arrival of two police vehicles at the entrance of the plant. Seconds later, a squadron of other cars surrounded the factory, their sirens firing loudly. Looking up, Alberto was stunned to see a helicopter hovering above him.

No one who worked at the plant knew what was happening.

Dozens of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and state law enforcement officers entered the slaughterhouse. They wore all black and bullet-proof vests, and shoved firearms into the workers’ faces. Some workers assumed it was a terrorist attack; others thought it was a mass shooting. Southeastern Provision’s routine butchery and bloodshed of cows had erupted into a new assault on human beings.

“My job, where I earn a living to support my family, became a war zone,” Alberto said.

ICE shoved over 100 Latino workers into vans, transporting them from Bean Station, Tennessee, to the National Guard Armory in Russellville for processing. At the time, it was the largest workplace raid in nearly a decade; the aftermath hit the community like an earthquake.

The raid is the subject of a lawsuit the SPLC filed today against individual ICE agents, alleging that the agents violated the workers’ constitutional rights because they arrested the immigrants solely on the basis of their race and without probable cause. The National Immigration Law Center (NILC) is co-counsel to the lawsuit.

What’s more, white workers of the meatpacking plant were not arrested, nor were they subjected to the militaristic tactics that were used to arrest the Latino workers. It appeared that ICE decided to round up and arrest only those employees who appeared to be Latino – a situation that violated the workers’ Fifth Amendment rights, according to the lawsuit.

“You can’t just sweep in and, just on the basis of someone looking Latino, arrest them,” said Michelle Lapointe, a senior supervising attorney for the SPLC. “There was no probable cause whatsoever to arrest them, and ICE did it anyway.”

The Constitution protects people from this type of law enforcement overreach, SPLC Senior Supervising Attorney Meredith Stewart said.

“You cannot arrest someone solely on the basis of their race,” Stewart said.

‘You’re a criminal’

After ICE barreled into the meatpacking plant with weapons drawn, Ofelia, who was cleaning internal organs, quickly hurried down a set of stairs before tripping and falling.

“Stand up!” an officer screamed at her.

When she looked up toward him, she found herself staring down the barrel of a gun.

Erick, who had been removing bones from the meat, watched a man lose consciousness and pass out. He watched as a woman was thrown to the floor.

“Hurry up!” the officers yelled, ignoring the woman’s panic.

Isabel Zelaya – one of seven plaintiffs in the lawsuit – had worked in the processing area of Southeastern Provision for a year. As ICE agents ordered him to throw his apron and work tools to the ground, he saw something that shocked and horrified him even more: The officers were aiming a firearm at his son who also worked at the plant. Apparently, he hadn’t taken off his tool belt quickly enough. 

Plaintiff Martha Pulido, who worked in the sanitation department of Southeastern Provision since 2017, had moved to Tennessee in 1999. She, too, was on the kill floor the day of the raid.

“I showed up to work that morning just like I had every day for nearly two years, ready to do my job and provide for my family,” Pulido said. “Instead, I had a gun pointed in my face and saw my co-workers get punched in the face and shoved to the ground by federal agents.”

Workers noticed that all exits had been blocked. Amid the mayhem, the officers’ voices grew more aggressive as they cursed at the workers.

Melisa, who had cut and separated ribs at Southeastern Provision since 2013, was directed to stand in a corner with roughly 20 other workers. Instructed to place her hands on her head, she was also ordered not to run, but to line up with other employees forced to gather at the central area of the plant.

But Zelaya protested; he had lived in the U.S. for 13 years and had legal status. He offered to show the officers documents to prove it. 

It didn’t matter. The officers weren’t interested.

Instead, they zip-tied Zelaya’s hands before shipping him to Russellville to be “investigated,” along with approximately 100 other Latino workers.

On the way, the driver of one van took a selfie, the workers’ hopeless faces in the background. Uncomfortable in her seat, a pregnant worker complained that her wrists were bound too tightly.

“Too bad,” the officers said. “We don’t care. You’re a criminal.”

Some would be detained at the armory for hours before being released; others were sent to immigration prisons in Louisiana, hundreds of miles away from their homes and children. In the span of only a few hours, families’ lives were shattered.

‘Don’t run your mouth’

Of those immigrants who were seized, some had authorization to work in the U.S., including Zelaya.

“I have lived in Tennessee for 12 years,” Zelaya said. “This is my home. My family is here. My friends are here. I have land here. This is where my dreams have taken root. I am part of this lawsuit because I want justice for myself and my co-workers who were denied our constitutional rights, as well as our humanity.”

The raid could signal a deep threat not just to immigrants, but to everyone in America, said Stewart, the SPLC attorney.

“What happened on April 5, 2018 was law enforcement overreach, plain and simple,” Stewart said. “We, as a nation, have a shared set of ideals, rooted in the Bill of Rights: We have a right to be free of 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.”

During the raid, as workers huddled together in the central area of the plant, the officials – who did not have arrest warrants – confiscated some workers’ wallets and personal items and hoarded them for later use. The information would identify people they were detaining at the armory.

When the workers asked to speak to an attorney, the officials denied them this right. Instead, they were asked how long they had been in the U.S., and if they were from Mexico. After that, the officials insisted they not say anything.

“If you don’t speak English, be quiet,” they said. “Don’t run your mouth.”

Zelaya was unlawfully detained at the armory for over an hour, and Pulido was released 14 hours after the raid began. In total and with little explanation, ICE released 37 other workers within the first 24 hours.

But after hours of waiting, 64 workers remained, and they were pushed into vans headed to rural Louisiana. There, they would be detained at one of two immigrant prisons.

In the vans, workers sat together like canned sardines, sweating. They were not allowed to call home before departing, leaving their families to believe they had disappeared.

As they sped south, everyone grew hungry; it had been nearly nine hours since they had last eaten. They were eventually tossed plain ham sandwiches and a bottle of water.

Not one of the workers bound for Louisiana knew where they were headed. It was after midnight when they arrived for an overnight stay at a DeKalb County, Alabama, prison. The workers feared they were being deported.

A never-ending trauma

Back in Morristown, where many of the workers lived, the effect of the raid was devastating.

A small, industrial community of roughly 30,000 people, Morristown is located only 15 minutes from Bean Station. Twenty-two percent of its residents are immigrants, and their children are U.S. citizens and only know Morristown as home. Most parents have lived there for over two decades.

The day after the raid, approximately 600 Latino children were absent from school. They feared being arrested, Alberto said. Families were now displaced. Fathers were gone; mothers, too. Children were frightened and wept in their parents’ absence. The whole town heaved a collective sigh of sadness.

But some had been preparing for such a tragedy.

Those who had been released from the armory, along with families of those captured by ICE, sought safety at a local church, where Father Steven Pawelk, a Catholic missionary in Grainger County, along with the Tennessee Immigrant Refugee & Rights Coalition (TIRRC), had set up a crisis center.

TIRRC began to coordinate legal services for those who had been affected, and Pawelk put a safety plan into place by ensuring that everyone had a valid ID approved by the sheriff’s department.

The church was soon flooded with concerned parishioners and community members.

“Most people didn’t go home that evening,” Pawelk said. “We hosted three Latino families that night, and we divided families into homes to stay with strangers, although they were all members of the church. Everyone was very afraid and didn’t want to return home.”

TIRRC estimates that roughly 160 U.S. citizen children under the age of 10 had a parent arrested that night. Their teachers sympathized with them, and in the weeks that followed, people outside the Latino community began donating supplies, no matter their political stance. A bilingual counselor also traveled to Morristown to help families cope, and Pawelk provided a counselor for the children whose lives were now consumed with worry.

“One child was asking for a loan to get his parents documented, even though neither of his parents worked in the plant,” he said. “The raid had an enormous ripple effect. The trauma for the families will never end.”

In the immediate aftermath, TIRRC teamed up with the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project of the SPLC that provides pro bono legal representation to those facing immigration proceedings in the Southeast – along with other Louisiana-based attorneys – to assist the newly detained workers. The organization also helped to secure money to free the workers on bond.

While some were eventually released, four parishioners from Pawelk’s church were deported, one of whom had been in the U.S. for three decades.

“The workers were getting no breaks,” Pawelk said. “It was a very ugly environment.”

Silenced and underpaid

After over a week stuck in a musty van that shuttled them to Louisiana, the workers found themselves locked up in a detention center. Of those detained, only 11 faced criminal charges, nine of whom simply had prior deportation orders. The majority of the workers had been placed under administrative arrest for civil immigration violations. All of them were entered into removal proceedings, but SIFI, along with other counsel obtained by TIRRC, helped to secure the release of 40 workers. Twelve workers took voluntary departure, and in total, six workers were ordered deported, including the four parishioners from Pawelk’s church.

By September 2018, Southeastern Provision’s owner, James Brantley, had been arrested, but he was released on bond. The irony was not lost on many townspeople, who thought it was a cruel twist that Brantley went free, while the workers he had employed were suffering for months in an immigrant prison, awaiting bond.

Days after the raid, on April 13, 2018, the SPLC filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) over Brantley’s failure to provide workers with overtime pay, among other allegations of abuse.

Most employees at the meatpacking plant worked six, 12-hour days a week for $6 to $10 an hour. Workers who were injured on the job and needed to go to the hospital were instructed by management to say their injuries occurred at home, so the plant could avoid liability.

Alberto remembers one man who lost a few fingers while using an electric saw in the plant. An Internal Revenue Service (IRS) informant who was working undercover observed that workers were often exposed to bleach and other harsh chemicals without protective equipment.

But the general rule that management gave to workers was, “If you don’t like it, go somewhere else.” Virtually none of the workers had that option, giving Brantley the opportunity to do as he pleased.

Such treatment of workers is not uncommon in the meatpacking industry.

In 2005, a Human Rights Watch report detailed how slaughterhouses primarily depend on immigrant workers. According to the article, immigrants are “often the only ones who will work under such terrible conditions,” and factory owners “exploit the illegal status of undocumented workers to keep them quiet.”

In 2018, the U.S. employed 500,000 people to work in slaughterhouses; 38 percent were immigrants. Knowing that workplace raids happen incites more fear in these immigrants, leaving them feeling even more helpless against an employer’s abuse.

“Targeting immigration enforcement efforts on workers will only drive them further into the shadows, making them more vulnerable to exploitation and less likely to complain,” Stewart said. “This lowers the standards and working conditions for all workers.”

At Southeastern Provision, the IRS informant also found that Brantley had been paying the workers in cash for at least a decade. By doing so, he and his wife had evaded over $8 million in taxes while employing the workers, a federal crime.

After the informant’s visit to the meatpacking plant, the IRS issued a search warrant for financial documents. The SPLC lawsuit alleges that the IRS search warrant did not authorize the prolonged and race-based detention of the Latino workers.

By December 2018, Southeastern Provision closed, although there is speculation that it may reopen sometime this year.

Standing Strong

After Brantley’s arrest, Morristown was still suffering. Three months after the raid, Latino parents couldn’t buy food for their children, and they were afraid to drive their kids to a doctor’s appointment or school, for fear of being pulled over and detained.

They were especially afraid to drive at night, when police vehicles could be lurking in the shadows. The joy and safety Latinos once found in Morristown has been replaced with grief and terror, as the impact of the raid seemed to upended lives that took years to build.

Along South Cumberland Street – a main street in town – rows of previously booming Latino-owned businesses were closing.  Latinos hunker down at home, scared of ICE making a return visit.

But today, Latinos are determined to move on from the trauma of the raid, even though the emotional distress hasn't quite faded. They are standing strong and bouncing back, their wounds on the mend.

Over nine months later, the Latino community refuses to give up or give in to what could have derailed it permanently. Instead, Morristown is persevering. It's a town that is still thriving, its resilience solid.