Video confirms abuse of immigrants by federal agents in East Tennessee slaughterhouse raid

By: - August 25, 2022 7:02 am
Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse in Grainger County. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse in Grainger County. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Video obtained by the Tennessee Lookout confirms that a U.S. Department of Homeland Security agent stepped on the neck of a Grainger County slaughterhouse worker who was facedown on the floor with another agent on his back during a controversial raid in April 2018.

Additional videos and depositions obtained also show that federal agents seized, searched, cursed, handcuffed and detained all Latino workers at the Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse in Bean Station, Tenn., without any proof of wrongdoing but allowed white workers to go free without further investigation.

The Tennessee Lookout earlier this month filed a motion seeking the unsealing of video footage from the slaughterhouse raid that federal agents sought to keep under wraps. U.S. Magistrate Judge Christopher Seger unsealed the footage and related documents, including excerpts of deposition testimony, two days later.

The video and documents are part of a U.S. District Court lawsuit filed on behalf of Latino plant workers against federal agents and the U.S. government after the raid — which was supposed to be a search for tax-related records but was, instead, one of the nation’s largest workplace immigration raids in recent history.

The workers contend the raid was designed to bolster then-President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to get tough on illegal immigration.

Agents spent nearly a year planning the raid, including obtaining dozens of plastic zip ties to use as handcuffs, securing use of a National Guard armory in a neighboring county as a makeshift immigration detention center and lining up buses to transport Latino workers, but never sought to determine if any of the plant workers were in the country illegally before storming inside the plant with guns drawn, records reviewed by the Tennessee Lookout show.

“Despite knowing that ethnicity cannot be the sole factor supporting reasonable suspicion for a detention and (that) officers cannot target a group for enforcement based on their ethnicity, the case agents proceeded to plan for the mass detention and arrest of the plant’s Latino workers,” attorney Jeremy Berman wrote in an affidavit unsealed by Seger earlier this month.

“During the nearly one-year investigation of the plant, (agents) did not obtain any individualized facts or evidence that any specific plant worker was in the United States in violation of immigration laws,” Berman continued.

Depositions reviewed by the Tennessee Lookout show agents cursed at Latino workers, calling them “f**kers,” and mocked them.

Punch to the face; boot on the neck

Geronimo Guerrero was one of 104 Latino workers rounded up during the raid. In a deposition, Guerrero said dozens of men and women dressed in black shirts and armed with guns stormed inside the plant without warning.

Guerrero initially thought the armed intruders might be immigration agents — until one of them, later identified as U.S. Department of Homeland Security Agent John Witsell, punched him.

“He came and hit me in my face with a closed fist,” Guerrero testified in a deposition. “At that moment, I got confused because I thought if it’s immigration, immigration wouldn’t do that because I was not running and I was not a threat. At the moment when the officer hit me, I thought immigration doesn’t do that. So, I thought it was terrorists who had come in.”

After Witsell punched Guerrero, two more agents “grabbed me by my arms,” Guerrero testified. “They tried to push me against the wall but against the wall, there was a bucket of boiling water, so they pulled me to another wall, and they put me against another wall. I only said, ‘Why?’ I asked them why, but they never said who they were. They didn’t say anything.”

When Latino worker Jose Maurico Rodas-Guillen saw the armed men and women storm inside the plant, he ran toward an employee break room at the plant, video obtained by the Tennessee Lookout shows. Witsell and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Francisco Ayala tackled him to the ground.

With Rodas-Guillen face down on the floor, Witsell can be seen on the video punching him just before Ayala pulled Rodas-Guillen’s arms behind him and kneeled on Rodas-Guillen’s back. With Rodas-Guillen immobile on the floor with both arms restrained by Ayala behind his back, Witsell stepped onto Rodas-Guillen’s neck and kept his boot there for nearly 30 seconds, the video shows.

Ayala has acknowledged in a deposition that Rodas-Guillen posed no threat to either him or Witsell at the time Witsell stepped on the worker’s neck and conceded Witsell’s use of force was unnecessary.

Witsell is refusing to give a deposition or submit to questioning by workers’ attorneys and, as a result, is being barred from testifying either in his own defense or in defense of fellow agents. Witsell blames an unspecified medical condition for his lack of cooperation in the litigation.

The Justice Department has confirmed in court filings that the agency is no longer representing Witsell in the lawsuit. According to Justice Department filings, Witsell’s behavior during the raid was investigated by the federal Office of Professional Responsibility but records related to that investigation remain sealed. The Justice Department itself has refused to initiate an investigation into Witsell’s alleged civil-rights abuses during the raid, records show.

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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.