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In Rare Victory, Immigrants Prevail in Suit Over Meat Plant Raid


Nearly 100 immigrants who were rounded up during a 2018 raid at a meat processing plant in Tennessee have reached a $1.17 million settlement against the U.S. government and federal agents, who they said used racial profiling and excessive force during the operation, stepping on a person’s neck and punching another in the face.

The agreement, approved late Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, is very likely the first class settlement over an immigration enforcement operation at a work site, according to immigration experts. In the past, only individual immigrants have reached settlements related to immigration raids.

Under the terms of the settlement, members of the lawsuit will receive $550,000, or more than $5,700 each. Six named plaintiffs will receive a total of $475,000 from the federal government to resolve their claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows individuals to be compensated for negligent or wrongful acts by agents of the federal government.

The Homeland Security Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday, but neither the federal government or the agents admitted wrongdoing in the case.

Legal experts called it a rare victory for undocumented immigrants. “It is very hard to win a settlement from the U.S. government and agents in immigration enforcement cases,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a law professor specializing in immigration at Cornell Law School. “The outcome is particularly important because federal agents were held accountable for overreaching and racial profiling.”

In April 2018, armed agents with the Homeland Security Department and the Internal Revenue Service burst into the Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant in Bean Station, a rural town in northeastern Tennessee, and rounded up all but one Latino worker, including at least one U.S. legal resident and one American citizen. The only exception was a man who had hidden in a freezer.

The raid, which federal agents called “The Great American Steak Out,” was part of the Trump administration’s crack down on illegal immigration — at the border and inside the country — with high-profile work-site raids that had last occurred when George W. Bush was president.

The operation followed an I.R.S. investigation that had found evidence that the owner of the company, located outside the city of Morristown, Tenn., was paying plant workers in cash to evade taxes.

Latino workers were handcuffed and transported to a National Guard Armory, where most were put in deportation proceedings. At least 20 immigrants were swiftly deported. Others were released and have been fighting in court to remain in the United States.

In February 2019, several nonprofit organizations, including the National Immigration Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a lawsuit against the federal agents and the U.S. government, accusing them of targeting workers based on their ethnicity and violating their civil rights. (Last August, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee certified the case as a class action, paving the way for relief for all the Latino workers.)

A search warrant had authorized entry into the plant by federal agents, but it did not authorize the arrest of any workers, even if they were undocumented, according to court documents.

“They used the pretext of a tax investigation of the plant’s owner to plan and carry out a full-blown operation targeting the Latino workers,” said Michelle Lapointe, deputy legal director for the National Immigration Law Center and the lead attorney in the lawsuit.

A video, reviewed by The Times, showed agents separating Latino workers and frisking them. “White workers were allowed to walk free,” Ms. Lapointe said.

More than 150 children were directly affected by the detention of their parents, and the next day about 600 children were absent from school, as fear gripped the immigrant community. Teachers, lawyers, clergy and other Morristown residents rallied around the immigrants in the ensuing days.

“Everything was normal, and then in an instant everything changed,” recalled Martha Pulido, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, who spoke on Monday at a news conference.

The settlement will not automatically allow the workers to remain in the country indefinitely. But they will receive a letter from the federal government confirming that they are class members in the lawsuit, which they can submit to help their immigration cases. And one of the deported plaintiffs will be allowed to return to the United States.

Workers not in the country will receive their settlement through money-transfer services, such as Western Union.

Advocacy organizations will now try to secure permanent legal residency for the immigrant workers.

”Our next step is to ensure that the workers who were part of the class action can obtain immigration relief — to obtain work permits and legal authorization to remain in the country,” said Lisa Sherman Luna, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

Morristown, a town of 30,000 northeast of Knoxville, has drawn migrants workers from Latin America since the early 90s, when they first arrived to toil in the tomato farms, often coming and going mainly from Mexico each year.

The workers were part of a swelling wave of migrants bypassing traditional gateway states like California to find opportunity in fast-growing southern states. As stronger security at the border made it more difficult for people to move back and forth, many workers settled in the area and had children.

Morristown is the county seat of Hamblen County, where Latinos now make up more than 10 percent of the population and an even larger share of the student body in public schools. Among them is Cristina Zapote, 41, who was arrested during the raid and released the same day because she had two young children.

On Monday, Ms. Zapote said that she was excited that workers would receive compensation. “I never thought it would be possible,” she said. “I hope I can achieve an immigration status and help my children accomplish all their dreams.”

Others said they were still traumatized by the raid and the separation from their children.

“It will stay with all of the families forever,” said Ms. Pulido, who has lived in the United States since the 1990s. “I am not happy, but I am content to see that justice prevailed over injustice.”


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