U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested 97 immigrants at a meatpacking plant in Tennessee on Thursday in what immigration advocates have claimed was the largest workplace raid carried out by the federal law enforcement agency in at least a decade. The raid comes roughly six months after acting ICE Director Thomas Homan vowed to target employers known for hiring undocumented immigrants and increase the number of workplace raids.
A raid at the Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant in Grainger County resulted in 10 people being arrested on federal immigration charges and one person arrested on state charges. Another 86 people were detained on suspicion of having illegally entered the country. A total of 97 people, all of whom ICE said were suspected of being in the country illegally, were arrested in the raid, The Washington Post reported ICE spokeswoman Tammy Spicer said in a statement. Immigration advocates told the Post that most of those picked up in the raid were believed to be from Mexico.
"The ICE raid in Tennessee on Thursday signals a return to the days of large-scale, militaristic workplace raids that needlessly shatter families, leave children without parents and send hard-working immigrants out of jobs and into the shadows," the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a statement released Friday. "There's absolutely no need for this kind of extreme action. It's counterproductive, it's mean-spirited and it comes with a high cost in terms of human suffering." The nonprofit civil rights organization said it was preparing to represent those detained during the raid.
The Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, a local immigrant rights organization, said they were "deeply alarmed" at the raid, which they called a "brazen and cruel attack on families" in a statement on Twitter. The organization also told a local Fox affiliate that workers at the plant had reported experiencing "rough treatment and detention despite having work authorization." Thirty-two of the 86 people initially detained by ICE agents in the raid on the Tennessee meatpacking plant were later released. However, ICE has not yet provided details as to why they were released, the Post reported.
According to ICE officials, Thursday's raid at Southeastern Provision was a joint operation with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), investigators from the Department of Homeland Security, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol. According to the Post, federal authorities began investigating the meatpacking plant a few months ago after employees at a local bank reported the company was routinely withdrawing large amounts of cash.
IRS agents have alleged the company was paying undocumented immigrants in cash. They have also alleged the company failed to pay at least $2.5 million in payroll taxes while failing to report some $8.4 million in wages. The IRS also alleged that undocumented workers at Southeastern Provision were forced to work long hours with no overtime and not provided with protective eyewear despite working around various harsh chemicals.
In October, Homan, ICE's acting director, promised the agency would increase its worksite enforcement actions "by four to five times" in 2018. "When we find you at a work site, we're no longer going to turn our heads," CNN reported Homan said in a speech delivered at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. "We'll go after the employer who knowingly hires an illegal alien... but we're always going to arrest a person who is here illegally. That is our job."
Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Immigration Law Center have said Thursday's raid at the Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant was the largest workplace raid conducted by ICE in a decade.