Grainger County slaughterhouse workers push back on claims from feds

By: - July 27, 2022 8:17 am
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Federal agents’ claim they will be endangered by the public release of video showing an agent with his boot on the neck of a Latino worker during a raid of a Grainger County slaughterhouse is “baseless” and self-serving, workers’ attorneys contend in a new court filing.

“These (agents) have offered the court zero evidence to support their position that allowing the public to view the video and hear the parties describe its contents will ‘prejudice potential jurors, provoke retaliation and place the agents at personal risk,’” National Immigration Law Center attorney Joanna Elise Cuevas Ingram wrote.

“Instead, these (agents) insinuate, in so many words, that release of the video will spark riots,” Ingram continued. “This claim is dubious in light of the substantial information already on the public record about this incident … Moreover, this baseless catastrophizing concedes that there is intense public interest in videos of police misconduct.”

Attorneys for agents accused in a federal lawsuit of targeting and, in some instances, brutalizing Latino workers during an April 2018 raid of the Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse in Grainger County are asking U.S. Magistrate Judge Christopher Steger to block the public release of a specific portion of video footage from the raid.

Instead, these (agents) insinuate, in so many words, that release of the video will spark riots. This claim is dubious in light of the substantial information already on the public record about this incident.

– Joanna Elise Cuevas Ingram, National Immigration Law Center

The agents’ attorneys did not describe the contents of the footage they wish to keep hidden but argued public release of it would put the lives of federal agents, particularly those with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, at risk and could prompt public protests and “violence.”

The video footage remains under seal pending a ruling by Steger. But the Tennessee Lookout last week revealed in an exclusive report that the footage the agents want to keep hidden appears to show U.S. Department of Homeland Security John Witsell putting his boot on the neck of a Latino worker who was facedown on the floor with his hands behind his back and keeping it there for 24 seconds.

In a response to the agents’ motion to seal the footage, Ingram contends the “video is plainly relevant” to the overarching allegation in the workers’ lawsuit — that federal agents specifically targeted Latino workers at the slaughterhouse because of their ethnicity and conspired to violate their civil rights.

“Because these are matters of strong public interest, First Amendment and common law rights of access to judicial records are paramount,” Ingram wrote in urging Steger to make the footage public. “The (footage) is very much relevant to (workers’) motion for class certification … to show that the raid was conducted in an unnecessarily violent, humiliating and demeaning manner toward Latino workers.”

slaughterhouse raid response to sealing request

Records search turns immigration raid

Dozens of heavily-armed federal agents with agencies including Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service converged on the Grainger County slaughterhouse to conduct what was supposed to be a search for records in a tax evasion case against the plant owner.

Court records have since revealed agents had been planning for months to seize Latino workers inside the slaughterhouse as part of then-President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to get tough on illegal immigration but never told the federal magistrate judge who issued the search warrant.

The plant owner was not arrested during or immediately after the raid. Records show agents allowed white workers and supervisors to roam free during the raid but rounded up dozens of Latino workers at gunpoint. Most of those Latino workers were handcuffed, placed inside buses, transported to a National Guard Armory building in a neighboring county and held there for hours — without any evidence of wrongdoing.

A half dozen of those Latino workers later filed a lawsuit against the agents in U.S. District Court. Records filed in that lawsuit have revealed instances in which agents mocked Latino workers and, in at least three separate incidents, brutalized some of them.

Witsell was already accused in the litigation of punching a worker in the head without provocation, a use of force his own fellow agents called “excessive.”

A Tennessee Lookout investigation revealed Witsell was also captured on slaughterhouse security camera footage putting his boot on the neck of another Latino worker who was facedown on the floor with his hands behind his back and keeping it there for 24 seconds.

ICE Agent Francisco Ayala has acknowledged in a deposition obtained by the news organization that the worker posed no threat to him or Witsell and that Witsell’s use of force was unnecessary.

Citing an unidentified medical condition, Witsell has refused to appear for a deposition in the workers’ lawsuit or fully answer questions from the workers’ attorneys. The U.S. Department of Justice has parted ways legally with Witsell in the workers’ lawsuit, requiring him to hire a private attorney to defend himself.

Citing his refusal to participate in the discovery phase of the litigation, Magistrate Judge Steger is now recommending that Witsell be barred from testifying in his own defense at trial and that jurors be instructed they can hold his refusal to answer pre-trial questions against him.

U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough, who will preside over any trial of the workers’ lawsuit, has twice questioned the credibility and motives of agents in planning and carrying out the raid, which turned out to be the largest immigration round-up in recent Tennessee history.

It’s not clear when Steger will rule on the agents’ motion to bar the public from seeing the video footage of Witsell putting his boot on a worker’s neck. Any ruling he makes likely will be appealed to McDonough.

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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.