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Isabel Zelaya, et al. v. Robert Hammer, et al.

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On April 5, 2018, agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Internal Revenue Service along with law enforcement from the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Morristown Police Department executed the largest workplace immigration raid in nearly a decade at Southeastern Provision, an East Tennessee meat processing plant.

The raid grew out of a criminal investigation of the plant’s owner, James Brantley, for tax fraud and financial misconduct. (Later that year, Brantley, then 61, would plead guilty to various charges stemming from the investigation.) Federal and local law enforcement conducting the investigation discovered plant managers were withdrawing substantial amounts of cash to directly pay workers, potentially avoiding a paper trail that would require them to pay payroll taxes.

However, officers from the four law enforcement agencies only had a search warrant related to the investigation of the plant owner. They also knew nothing about the individual immigration statuses of the workers. The agents relied on information that the plant hired “Hispanics” and paid its workers in cash to trigger a raid to target, arrest and detain approximately 104 Latinx workers at the plant. In other words, Hispanic ethnicity became a proxy for unlawful status during the raid.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, along with the National Immigrant Law Center (NILC) and pro bono attorneys from Sherrard, Roe, Voigt & Harbison, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the workers. The lawsuit describes how federal agents and Tennessee law enforcement planned to detain every worker who looked Latinx at the Southeastern Provision meat packing plant without regard to citizenship or documentation, a clear violation of federal civil conspiracy law.

As they executed the raid, federal agents and law enforcement disregarded workers’ rights by making unlawful arrests and using excessive force. Heavily armed with tactical gear, agents and officers surrounded the plant, blocking exits and public roads. They even surveilled the premises from a helicopter. One federal agent struck a worker in the face and later tackled a different worker, placing a foot on the back of the worker’s neck. Other agents berated and hurled profanity at Latinx workers.

Many Latinx workers were not even asked about documentation until hours into the raid. Workers were first detained, forced into lines, frisked and placed into vans that were driven to a holding facility located approximately 20 miles from the plant. Non-Latinx workers were spared from the agents’ abusive and humiliating conduct and were allowed to leave the plant.

The raid devastated the local community. According to the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, over 150 children were affected by a parent detained in the raid. Nearly 600 children didn’t show up for school the next day, a sign of community fear. The effects of the raid were far-reaching as workers were active participants of vibrant communities around the plant.

The raid came the same year the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the plant $41,775 for workplace safety violations. Two years later, in 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor entered a consent order under which Southeastern Provision was required to pay over $600,000 in unpaid wages and liquidated damages.

As for the raid, a judge certified the case as a class action on Aug. 9, 2022, in a precedent-setting decision, paving the way for classwide relief. Two months later, a federal judge preliminarily approved a class settlement that provides over $1 million to workers detained in the raid. Under the settlement, class members will receive a total of $550,000 and, upon request, a letter from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirming their membership in the class that can be included in any applications for immigration relief.

The settlement also requires the United States to pay $475,000 to the six individual plaintiffs to resolve their Federal Tort Claims Act claims, including excessive force and unlawful arrest, and $150,000 in attorneys’ fees and expenses to the SPLC and co-counsel, NILC.

The court granted final approval to the settlement on Feb. 27, 2023. More than 95% of class members submitted claims to access the settlement’s benefits.