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Lawsuit Alleges ICE Agents Violated Workers’ Constitutional Rights Against Racial Profiling and Illegal Seizure

Seven workers file lawsuit in response to ICE raid at East Tennessee meat processing plant


KNOXVILLE — The National Immigration Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the law firm of Sherrard, Roe, Voigt & Harbison filed a lawsuit today on behalf of seven workers detained during an April 2018 immigration raid at an East Tennessee meat processing plant. The raid was the first large workplace immigration raid in nearly a decade, in which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detained approximately 100 Latino workers, violating their rights against illegal seizures and to equal protection under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  

“I have lived in Tennessee for 12 years. This is my home. My family is here. My friends are here. I have land here. This is where my dreams have taken root,” said Isabel Zelaya, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “On the morning of the raid, I was working at my normal station in the processing area when armed officers entered the plant. As the officers lined us up, I offered to show them my documentation to work in this country, but they handcuffed me anyway, detained me, and took me to the armory. After several hours, I was finally released. 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.”

“What happened in East Tennessee was law enforcement overreach, plain and simple,” said Meredith Stewart, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC.  “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.”
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.

“In this country, you’re told that if you work hard, you can achieve your goals. But sometimes they don’t let you,” said Martha Pulido, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “I showed up to work that morning just like I had every day for more than a year, ready to do my job and provide for my family. Instead, I had a gun pointed in my face and saw my coworkers get punched in the face and shoved to the ground by federal agents. I am here today to stand up for my coworkers at the plant and for all workers in this country who are at risk of having their constitutional rights violated.”

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 U.S. Constitution protects against government overreach and abusive conduct.

“We are proud to stand with our plaintiffs today to file the first lawsuit challenging a worksite immigration raid since Donald Trump became president. With the support of their community, these brave workers have decided to step forward and pursue justice. Together, their commitment to their work, to their families, and to the community in which they are deeply rooted reflects the best of this country they call home,” said Melissa Keaney, staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center.

The East Tennessee ICE raid devastated the local community, but the community is coming together to demand justice. These workers were active participants of vibrant communities around the Southeastern Provision plant, and the impacts of the raid were far-reaching. Nearly 600 kids didn’t show up for school the next day, and workers and their families are continuing to deal with the impacts of psychological trauma, physical ailments, and economic insecurity nearly a year later.

“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,” said Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC). “It is deeply disruptive to local communities, leaving children stranded without their parents, terrifying entire communities, and devastating local economies. 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.”