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Immigrants score a unique court victory vs. the govt.
Immigrants score a unique court victory vs. the govt. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images.

Immigrants win big against the U.S. government in suit over meat plant raid

Roughly 100 immigrants reached a $1.17 million settlement with the U.S. government over racial profiling & excessive force in a Tennessee plant raid from 2018.

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$1.17 million will soon make its way to roughly 100 immigrants after they successfully settled a discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. government and other federal agencies. It’s the first settlement of its kind according to immigration experts. 

The settlement, agreed upon late Monday, Feb. 28 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, accused federal authorities of excessive force and racial profiling during a 2018 raid on a meatpacking plant. 

Initially filed in February 2019, the suit stems from an April 2018 raid when armed agents from the Homeland Security Department and the Internal Revenue Service charged into the Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant in rural Bean Station, Tennessee. 

They gathered and collected all workers with the exception of one Latino worker, one U.S. legal resident and one American citizen with another man who hid in the freezer during the raid. 

The workers were handcuffed and taken to a National Guard Armory, where nearly all were put into deportation proceedings, with roughly 20 immigrants being deported very soon after. A few others were later released and have taken their fight to the courts to remain in the country. 

Dubbed the “Great American Steak Out” by federal officials, the raid was part of former President Donald Trump’s clamp down on illegal immigration whether at the border or inside the country already with loud work-site raids that last occurred when George W. Bush was in office. 

An IRS investigation soon commenced after the raid that found incriminating evidence of tax evasion on the part of the owner of the company that owned the plant. He was also paying plant workers in cash. 

This is likely the first class settlement over an immigration enforcement operation at a work site. In the past, only individual immigrants have reached settlements related to such raids. 

Experts also called it a “rare victory” for 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.”

According to the settlement terms, plaintiffs will receive $550,000, or over $5,700 each. Six named plaintiffs get a whopping $475,000 from the federal government to help satisfy the claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act that allows individuals to be compensated for wrongful acts by federal agents. 

A short time after the raid, a handful of nonprofit organizations, such as the National Immigration Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed the lawsuit against the federal agents and the U.S. government that accused them of racially targeting workers based on their ethnicity and thus violating their civil rights. 

Federal agents had a warrant that allowed them entry into the plant but did not, however, give permission for them to arrest workers no matter their immigration status, 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 lead attorney. 

According to documents, over 150 children were harshly affected by the raid due to federal agents arresting and detaining their parents. Six hundred children were absent from school the day after the raid. 

In the days after, teachers, lawyers and other Morristown residents showed support for the migrants. 

“Everything was normal, and then in an instant everything changed,” said Martha Pulido, a plaintiff and immigrant who’s resided in the U.S. since the 1990s. She spoke on Monday at a news conference.

While she is happy to see victory and justice, Pulido said it is still something that no one who was affected will ever forget. 

“It will stay with all of the families forever,” she said. “I am not happy, but I am content to see that justice prevailed over injustice.”

While the settlement does not automatically give workers legal status in the country, they will receive a letter from the federal government confirming that they are class members in the lawsuit. 

That in return can be submitted to help their immigration cases with one of the deported plaintiffs allowed to return to the country. 

Those no longer in the U.S. will receive their settlement through money-transfer services and now more work begins as advocacy organizations such as the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), have to find permanent legal residency for the 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, the executive director of TIRRC. 

The town in question is 30,000 miles northeast of Knoxville, has been a hotbed for many migrant workers since the early 90s, first working on the tomato farms. 

But most recently, with border security tightening more than ever and with other immigration legislation on the horizon to make matters even harder for immigrants, the workers in Tennessee are a handful of tens of thousands of others who have opted for work in growing southern states as opposed to usual sites like California or Nevada. 

Nearby Morristown is also the county seat of Hamblen County, where Latinos are currently over 10% of the population with a large Latino student body as well. 

Even after a settlement and almost three years of legal fighting, neither the government nor the federal agencies involved have admitted any wrongdoing in the matter. 

The Homeland Security Department has not commented since news of the settlement broke Monday afternoon.

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