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Federal Court Allows Workers’ Claims to Proceed in Lawsuit Challenging Major ICE Workplace Raid

A federal court acknowledged the validity of claims by workers detained because of the color of their skin in new order that greenlights majority of plaintiffs’ claims

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – On Sunday, January 31, a federal judge largely allowed a lawsuit challenging an April 2018 immigration raid to proceed, denying in part the federal government’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The raid took place at an East Tennessee meat processing plant and was at the time the largest workplace raid in nearly a decade. The plaintiffs allege that armed federal law enforcement officers used militaristic tactics and illegally targeted Latinx workers. 

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee denied the government's request to dismiss class claims alleging that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conspired with the Tennessee Highway Patrol to violate the equal protection rights of the workers detained in the raid. Plaintiffs’ individual claims of excessive force and all of their Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) claims will move forward in the litigation.  

In dismissing some of the plaintiffs’ claims, the Court stated that its hands were tied due to certain Supreme Court precedent, even though the plaintiffs alleged illegal conduct, and called on higher courts to “recognize causes of action that more directly address agents’ searches and seizures based on skin color.” 

“The lawsuit addresses the brutality and racial profiling the workers faced at the hands of government agents, but the human costs of this unconscionable abuse of power extend much further. Mass worksite raids are deeply disruptive to local communities, leaving children stranded without their parents, terrifying entire communities, and devastating local economies,” noted Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition. “We hope this lawsuit 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."  

“The Court’s decision acknowledges the racism and unconstitutionality of the federal government’s conduct during the Southeastern Provision raid. This is the very sort of racial profiling that immigrant communities have warned is inherent in worksite raids,” said Araceli Martínez-Olguín, a supervising attorney with the National Immigration Law Center (NILC). “We will continue to work with our clients to hold the federal government responsible, and to help ensure that worksite raids again become a thing of the past.” 

“What happened the day of the raid was law enforcement overreach, plain and simple,” said Meredith Stewart, a senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “Our laws protect people from exactly this type of misconduct – you cannot arrest someone solely on the basis of their race. Not only is this the law, but a shared value rooted in the Bill of Rights that we should ensure applies to all people.  We are eager for our clients to have their day in court.” 

In 2019, NILC, SPLC, and the law firm of Sherrard, Roe, Voigt & Harbison, along with pro bono attorneys at Skadden, Arps, filed the lawsuit on behalf of seven individuals and a class of workers detained in the raid during which ICE agents detained every worker who looked Latinx while allowing the white workers to roam free.  

Read the memorandum opinion here