Feds to settle suit over 2018 Tennessee slaughterhouse raid targeting Latino workers

By: - September 5, 2022 7:00 am
Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse in Grainger County. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

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

A settlement is in the works in a lawsuit filed by Latino workers at a Grainger County slaughterhouse who were arrested without proof of wrongdoing in a controversial raid authorized by the U.S. government.

U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough has issued a stay in the class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of Latino workers at the Southeastern Provision meat processing plant in Bean Station, Tenn., after the April 2018 raid.

The judge stated in the stay order that a proposed settlement has been reached between the workers, the U.S. government and a slew of federal agents accused of targeting Latino workers solely based on their ethnicity.

“On Aug. 29, 2022, the parties notified the court by e-mail of their agreement in principle to settle the case,” McDonough wrote. “In their notice, the parties request that the court stay all deadlines through Sept. 9, 2022, to allow sufficient time to finalize their settlement agreement.”

The U.S. District Court lawsuit was brought on behalf of the impacted workers by various nonprofit legal organizations including the National Immigration Law Center, Southern Poverty Law Center and National Domestic Workers Alliance.

The proposed settlement comes after the government and federal agents lost round after round of preliminary legal battles in the case and U.S. Magistrate Judge Christopher Steger decided to make public — despite agents’ objections — video and exhibits that support the workers’ claims of mistreatment.

Steger last month unsealed video showing U.S. Department of Homeland Security Agent John Witsell stepping on the neck of a Latino worker who was facedown on the floor with his hands cuffed behind his bar after the Tennessee Lookout filed a court challenge over its sealing.

The news organization then posted that video and two others, which made clear agents treated Latino workers differently than white workers during the raid, on its website for public viewing.

Arrest first, ‘develop probable cause’ later

Federal agents in April 2018 told now-retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Guyton they only intended to search the slaughterhouse for records to support a case against plant owner James Brantley for evading taxes by paying all his employees in cash.

It was a lie, and dozens of exhibits unsealed by Steger prove it.

Agents began planning the raid — dubbed Great American Steak Out — nearly a year before it was carried out and made specific plans for the mass arrest of Hispanic workers, including arranging for use of a National Guard armory as a makeshift immigration detention center, buses to transport Hispanic workers to that armory and a stack of plastic zip ties to handcuff them, even though white workers at the plant were also being paid in cash.

“From what I understand, the initial plan was to gain (or) make entry, detain the (workers), ask them of their legal status or lack thereof, then bring them to the employee control teams and put them in two different lines,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security Agent Trevor Christiansen said in a deposition reviewed by the Tennessee Lookout.

Between you and me, and I won’t repeat this, I’m pretty pissed off that we didn’t get an award for our case. I think it’s a bunch of BS.

– Agent Trevor Christiansen, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, on members of the raid team not being named on a list of government awards.

“One line was for people who claimed to be U.S. citizens or aliens authorized to work in the United States, and the other line was supposed to be for people who admitted to being in the country illegally,” Christiansen said.

Video captured on slaughterhouse security cameras revealed agents did not, in fact, separate workers based on immigration status claims and instead herded all Hispanic workers into one line, searched and handcuffed each one without allowing them to present proof of immigration status and took all of them to the armory for processing. White workers, meanwhile, were allowed to walk around freely.

Plant worker Isabel Zelaya testified in a deposition he told agents he was legally authorized to work in the U.S.

“I already told them I had my permit, and I pulled it out in order to show it to (an agent),” Zelaya testified. “He took it from me and said, ‘Go over there’ … where they were putting people … in a line.”

Despite showing agents proof of his legal employment status, Zelaya was arrested and detained at the armory for more than two hours, records show. There were at least two American citizens of Latino descent who also were among those detained at the armory, records show.

Christiansen and other agents deposed in the case admitted they never once used any tools at the government’s disposal to try to determine the legal status of plant workers before or during the raid. The agents also admitted they referred to all Hispanic workers as “illegals” in those planning meetings and documents without any proof of illegal immigration status.

“So was it your understanding that the (Latino workers) could not be released from that detention until they provided their legal status?” an attorney asked U.S. Department of Homeland Security Agent Travis Carrier in a deposition.

Carrier replied, “Yes. We had the right to detain everyone.”

Under state and federal law as well as the U.S. Constitution, law enforcers must have “reasonable suspicion” of wrongdoing to temporarily detain anyone and must have probable cause that a crime has been committed and the person being detained committed that crime before arresting anyone.

“So the plan was to develop probable cause with respect to individual workers at the plant (after they were detained and arrested)?” an attorney asked U.S. Department of Homeland Security Supervising Agent Ronald Appel.

Appel responded, “Yes.”

immigration raid text messages

‘Y’all seeing the media?’

Unsealed exhibits reviewed by the Tennessee Lookout as part of the news organization’s investigation into the raid reveal that agents not only improperly detained and arrested Latino workers but also berated, mocked and, in two instances, brutalized them.

Witsell, for instance, punched worker Geronimo Guerro in the face without cause in addition to the boot-on-the-neck incident captured on video. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Francisco Ayala has admitted he and other agents referred to Latino workers as “f—-ers” during the raid.

Agents reveled in the media attention the raid garnered, according to text messages reviewed by the Tennessee Lookout.

“Y’all seeing the media?” IRS Agent Nick Worsham said in a text message. “Largest ICE raid in a decade!!”

An unidentified agent responded, “Yeah, Fox, Washington Post and some others covered it. Nice!”

“Yep, I think it’s great,” Christiansen replied.

Worsham added, “Perfect timing with (former President Donald) Trump’s recent comments about immigration.”

Worsham also texted to fellow agents a screenshot of a fundraising campaign launched for families of Latino plant workers.

Christiansen responded, “I donated to that. Should I have not done that?”

immigration raid more text messages

An attorney later asked Christiansen in a deposition, “Did you donate to this fundraising site for families affected by the raid?”

“No, ma’am,” he answered. “I was being sarcastic because I don’t understand why people who are in the country illegally are getting funded, or getting funds, that were in the country illegally, working in a country illegally. I do not understand that.”

The attorney pressed, “You don’t think families affected by the raid should be entitled to any money as a result of the raid?”

“I don’t think people who commit crimes should be rewarded,” he replied.

Records reveal Christiansen also complained when a list of government awards did not include him and fellow agents who carried out the raid.

“Between you and me, and I won’t repeat this, I’m pretty pissed off that we didn’t get an award for our case,” Christiansen wrote in an email to Appel. “I think it’s a bunch of BS. My buddy went and got (an) award a couple of years ago although he seized about the same money as us (and) there were probably only a dozen arrests. If you can’t tell, I’ve been drinking beer, and I don’t know why we were overlooked. But it’s a bunch of (expletive).”

In his deposition, Christiansen said Appel later explained that the agents had indeed been awarded for their raid work but “it must have been left off the email that was sent out of the annual … awards.”

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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.