NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Seven Latino workers are suing federal immigration authorities over a raid at an eastern Tennessee meatpacking plant that ended in the arrests of about 100 people.
The National Immigration Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Sherrard, Roe, Voigt & Harbison law firm filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Knoxville.
The class action lawsuit claims the Southeastern Provision workers' 4th and 5th Amendment constitutional rights were violated in April when armed officers raided the Bean Station plant, using racial slurs, shoving guns in their faces and punching one worker in the face. Workers at first feared there was a terrorist attack or active shooter at the plant, as two helicopters flew overhead, officers had blocked the road and some stood behind large machine guns, the lawsuit says.
It also alleges that officers didn't know workers' identities or immigration statuses, only that many were Hispanic. Only 11 of about 100 workers were charged with crimes, and they were nonviolent ones, the lawsuit says.
White workers at the plant, meanwhile, were not accosted, detained, searched or arrested, and many stood outside smoking during the raid, the lawsuit says.
Martha Pulido, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said she was handcuffed and had a gun pointed at her, was taken to a nearby armory, had her personal items confiscated, was fingerprinted and then was detained for about 14 hours.
"Why so many guns and such excess violence?" Pulido said through an interpreter during a conference Thursday. "The only thing we were doing was earning a living for our family."
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Bryan Cox said the operation was a federal criminal investigation that also spurred immigration arrests. He declined to comment on the lawsuit specifically, but said "the absence of comment should in no way be construed that ICE thinks a suit has any merit."
Cox said the agency's investigations are "equally focused in its worksite enforcement efforts on foreign nationals who unlawfully seek employment as well as the employers who knowingly hire them."
James Brantley, the plant's owner, pleaded guilty in September to federal charges of employing unauthorized immigrants, tax evasion and wire fraud.
Court records show Brantley dodged nearly $1.3 million in federal payroll taxes over the past decade. A plea agreement shows Brantley withdrew cash to pay some workers.
During the April raid, officers were helping to execute an Internal Revenue Service search warrant for financial documents related to Brantley, but, according to the lawsuit, had a far more extensive goal than what the search warrant authorized.
"They planned to detain and arrest every worker in the plant who was or appeared to be Latino," the lawsuit states.
National Immigration Law Center staff attorney Melissa Keaney said her team doesn't believe the immigration status of the plaintiffs is relevant to the lawsuit and won't be discussing that. The lawsuit mentions that one plaintiff is "legally authorized to live and work in the United States," but doesn't include the same level of detail on others.
Almost 600 children did not go to school in the area the day after the raid, the lawsuit says. Additionally, a state inspection days after the raid resulted in more than $41,000 in fines over the plant's working conditions.
Of the workers detained during the raid, 40 have been released on bond, 12 have voluntarily left the U.S., six were deported and five remain in custody, according to Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition.
At the time, it was the largest immigration workplace raid in nearly a decade, Keaney said. Months later, about 150 workers were arrested by federal agents in June at a Fresh Mark meatpacking plant in Ohio.