The rural community of Morristown, Tennessee, is reeling following the largest raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on a business in a decade. On Thursday, agents with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations wing, also known as HSI, stormed the Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant and detained scores of people.
In a reflection of the ongoing toll the raid has taken on Morristown’s immigrant community, Jeffrey Perry, superintendent of the Hamblen County school district, which includes Morristown, told The Intercept that hundreds of students did not show up to school following the operation. “The school district is not in the business of establishing policy at the national level or state level but we are focused on helping out students and families, so right now the staff and administration are focused on what we can do for our students and what we can do for our families,” Perry said. “In these situations everybody becomes a counselor.”
Jessica Hahn, a labor attorney with the National Immigration Law Center in Washington, said, “This kind of large scale worksite immigration raid is incredibly disruptive to local communities, leaving children stranded without their parents, terrifying entire communities, and devastating local economies. The effects are going to be felt for years to come.”
Advocates on the ground in Tennessee, meanwhile, said disturbing stories of ICE’s tactics last week continue to surface, including claims that the immigration enforcement agency separated workers at the facility by ethnicity and loaded them into vans without asking questions about their work or legal status, leaving a trail of devastated families wondering when they will see their loved ones again.
According to ICE, HSI agents “encountered 97 individuals who are subject to removal from the United States” during its execution of a federal criminal search warrant at the meatpacking plant. “Ten of those encountered were arrested on federal criminal charges, one was arrested on state charges and 86 were arrested on administrative charges,” ICE said in an email to The Intercept. “Of the 86 administrative arrests placed in removal proceedings, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) placed 54 in detention and 32 were released from custody.” The 10 cases of federal criminal charges were all related to immigrants who had re-entered the United States after being deported or failed to heed deportation orders, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel, a local newspaper.
In the wake of the raid, a combination of local religious and legal advocacy groups have been working around the clock to provide services to impacted families. They conducted scores of interviews with workers and members of their families. The accounts call into question the government’s portrayal of an orderly operation.
Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, or TIRRC, told The Intercept that her organization has conducted roughly 80 intake interviews since ICE descended on the Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse, as well as approximately 15 eyewitness interviews focused on the actions of the law enforcement officers and agents involved in the operation. The intake interviews, she said, are intended to design legal support around the needs of specific families and individuals. The interviews focused on law enforcement’s actions are aimed at establishing what exactly happened during the raid. Those interviews, Teatro explained, have been consistent on multiple points that raise serious concerns about the government’s conduct.
In a statement to the press, the Department of Justice said HSI, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol all took part in the raid. Interviewees described local authorities surrounding the meatpacking plant. “Some workers described them as blocking exits but not actually participating in the action itself,” Teatro said. With roads around the plant blocked off and a helicopter monitoring the situation from above, witnesses recalled “ICE storming in” from multiple entrances, according to Teatro. “It was like the building was just taken over by ICE.”
Though ICE claimed all 97 of the workers it arrested were eligible for deportation, advocates said the interviews conducted over the last week indicated the potential arrests of individuals who had authorization to work, as well as indiscriminate targeting of workers who appeared to be Latino. “We’re still, of course, verifying and documenting everything, but the emerging narrative is that actually they weren’t asked any questions,” Teatro said. “Nobody was given a chance to know why they, in particular, were being arrested or what they were being arrested for.”
Rather, advocates said, individuals were told to climb aboard white vans and transported to a National Guard armory. According to the advocates, a group of lawyers, working out of a nearby school that stayed open through the night, volunteered to take up cases. The lawyers presented the government with documentation expressing their intent to provide representation, the advocates said, but were denied access to the detainees inside the armory as they were processed and moved to detention centers in the region. (ICE declined to comment on whether lawyers were denied access to detainees or non-deportable, work-eligible immigrants were arrested.)
Andrew Free, a Nashville immigration and civil rights attorney, told The Intercept that the use of the National Guard armory marked a “dramatic escalation in the militarization of the war on immigrants.”
“I’d be very concerned as to the fact that it might be a harbinger of things to come,” he added, noting that the use of the National Guard facility in Tennessee came less than a week after President Donald Trump announced that he would deploy the reserve military force to the U.S. border with Mexico. “My fear — and I hope that this is not realized — is that once you cross this line between domestic interior immigration enforcement and military personnel, military facilities, military material, it’s hard for that line to then not get crossed again, and crossed further and further and further.”
ICE officials said the National Guard was not involved in the operation and that the armory was “the most appropriate government building to support the law enforcement action.” The National Guard did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“We need to be concerned about this,” Free said. “We’re going to look back and we’re going to see last week as the beginning of something very new.”
“Every worker that we talked to said that they arrested everybody, but several have said that they left all of the white managers and supervisors.”
According to Teatro, advocates are working to confirm repeated claims that, instead of asking questions to determine whether an individual was eligible for arrest and deportation, ICE instead took people into custody based on their ethnicity. “This is a follow-up question we have,” Teatro said. “Every worker that we talked to said that they arrested everybody, but several have said that they left all of the white managers and supervisors.”
She added, “Multiple people have said they arrested everybody, all the workers; they arrested all the brown people; or they left behind the white supervisors.”
In an affidavit for a search warrant filed last week, Nicholas Worsham, a special agent with the criminal division of the IRS, laid out the government’s justification for the raid, which followed a monthslong investigation of the family-run cattle-slaughtering business. Worsham accused Southeastern Provision of evading taxes, filing false tax returns, and illegally employing undocumented workers.
The affidavit names James Brantley, the plant’s president and general manager, as well as his wife, daughter, and another employee as targets of the investigation. But, unlike dozens of their workers, the Brantleys were not detained during the search conducted under the warrant, and they have not yet been charged. According to public records, the case that led to the Tennessee raid has been closed, suggesting that if the managers of the plant are charged, it will be in a separate case. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee said in a statement that it does not comment on ongoing investigations or pending litigation, and ICE did not respond an inquiry about why the targets of the affidavit were not arrested.
Though the administration has talked tough on worksite enforcement, some in the immigration advocacy community question the president’s willingness to go after managers of businesses that exploit undocumented immigrants. As an example, they point to Trump’s decision to commute the prison sentence of the owner of an Iowa slaughterhouse that was the site of the largest immigration raid in recent history, with nearly 400 arrests. (The man was serving time for fraud; the immigration-related charges had been dropped.)
The investigation into Southeastern Provision began after authorities learned of large amounts of cash withdrawn by the business on a weekly basis — more than $25 million over the last decade. In 2016, bank staff visited the business and were told that “the employees were Hispanic and were paid weekly with cash,” according to the filing.
Then, last year, a confidential informant got a job at the plant and reported that they had not been asked for an ID or other documentation. The informant, who spent four days at Southeastern Provision, also reported that employees were required to work overtime but were not paid for it and that they were made to work with extremely harsh chemicals, including bleach mixed with other cleaning agents, without appropriate protective eyewear. According to the affidavit, the informant, who later returned to the plant and covertly filmed it, believed “Southeastern Provisions exploited these employees because they were illegal aliens and have no legal recourse for workplace mistreatment.”
However, Hahn, of the National Immigration Law Center, said raids like the one in Tennessee can contribute to unsafe working conditions. “It was already difficult to get immigrant workers to speak publicly about labor violations at their jobs,” she said. “The draconian enforcement we are seeing from this rogue ICE agency under the Trump administration is going to make that nearly impossible.”
Advocates said the workers who were released appeared to fall into three categories: mothers with young children, individuals with serious medical conditions, and, potentially, individuals with legal authorization to work. If any detainees had work authorization, Teatro said, they “should not have been arrested in the first place.” She added that the exception for individuals with serious medical conditions appears to have been applied inconsistently, pointing to claims from families that there are individuals in ICE custody who have serious medical issues, but have not been released. (ICE did not respond to questions about its rationale for releasing detainees.)
One interviewee, Teatro said, “got a call from a family member in detention who said she hasn’t had her medicine since Thursday” and that employees at the detention center where she is being held “were denying her her medicine.” In another case, advocates say a woman who was at the plant claimed authorities did not believe her when she said she has diabetes. She was forced to roll up her sleeve and give herself an insulin shot to prove it. “That’s what we’ve been told by the woman — that they didn’t believe her that she had diabetes, and so they made her do it in front of everyone,” Teatro said. (ICE declined to comment on the charge that the woman was made to inject insulin to prove her illness.)
Beyond the trauma experienced by the families involved, what happened in Morristown is also a story of how community groups are tailoring their responses to immigration enforcement operations in the Trump era.
Worksite enforcement raids were common under the George W. Bush administration, but scaled back under Barack Obama — much to the disappointment of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., now the U.S. attorney general, and other hard-line immigration hawks. Since Trump came to office, immigration advocates have been bracing for the raids to return. In January, ICE’s Acting Director Thomas Homan indicated that efforts were already underway, telling a crowd at a border security conference that he had directed HSI agents to increase worksite enforcement operations by 400 percent.
“For the last year, we’ve really been building community-based infrastructure to be able to respond.”
In a dynamic that has played out in cities and towns across the country, the response in Tennessee featured collaboration between local legal advocacy organizations, faith groups, and educators. Teatro said her statewide organization was among those anticipating a crackdown from the Trump administration. “We expected these kind of large-scale raids much sooner,” Teatro said. “So for the last year, we’ve really been building community-based infrastructure to be able to respond.”
Because of that preparation, Teatro said her network was able to begin setting a response in motion within an hour and a half of the raid being launched. “Our first step was setting up an intake system,” Teatro explained. That system was designed to collect information on the individuals who were detained and distribute interview forms for eyewitnesses. In the early stages, TIRRC conducted the intake work from its Nashville office, with undocumented youth making phone calls and “getting information from people who, four hours away, were experiencing this raid,” Teatro said.
Teatro arrived in Morristown just after midnight Thursday and worked through the night compiling data from the roughly 80 intake interviews conducted in the preceding hours. She, along with scores of other volunteers, have been working on the case ever since.
By Friday, the support network had set up a command center inside St. Patrick Parish Center, a Catholic church where a majority of the workers impacted by the raid attend services. “There’s rooms overflowing with food for people to take,” Teatro said, as well as attorneys on hand to help families begin the process of fighting their immigration cases in court. So far, the volunteers have helped families fill out roughly 200 power of attorney forms, Teatro said, “to insure custody for their kids, depending on what happens with the cases of this raid, but also [for] other people in the community who are afraid of subsequent enforcement actions.”
Perry, the Hamblen County superintendent, told The Intercept that about 550 children were absent from school the day after the raid — 20 percent of the county’s Hispanic student population, according to the Citizen Tribune, a local newspaper. Perry said 177 of those students remained absent on Monday. (ICE declined to comment on the raid’s impact on the local school district.)
Perry said that teachers and other school staff have been doing their best to help students cope with the loss of family members “and some of the anxiety and frustration and uncertainty that they are experiencing.”
“Administrators are trying to be particularly understanding of these particular students because they are indeed innocent in the whole situation,” Perry added, his voice cracking. “We have a lot of good people in our community who care deeply about children and families, and several people have come together to make sure that all the children are taken care of.”
Jordyn Horner, a library media specialist with the district, wrote on Facebook over the weekend that her students were “in tears, upset, angry, and afraid.”
“I spent Friday trying to find ways to answer many tough questions, giving lots of hugs, and making sure that my students felt safe in my library,” Horner wrote. “This community has been completely torn apart.”
Whether ICE’s arrests were lawful remains to be seen and could become the subject of legal wrangling. According to a passage in an internal HSI special agent manual pertaining to the agency’s view of its authorities in conducting the execution of criminal search warrants, ICE allows itself a degree of flexibility in detaining individuals during operations such as the raid in Tennessee.
A special agent “executing a criminal search warrant has the authority to briefly detain any individuals present at the location of the enforcement site,” reads the manual, dated October 2007, which was obtained by The Intercept. “Included within this authority are individuals attempting to leave the enforcement site in the presence of [special agents] arriving and individuals who arrive or attempt to obtain access to the enforcement site. An individual may be detained at the enforcement site for as long as deemed necessary by the [special agents] during the execution of the criminal search warrant.” (ICE declined to comment on whether the 2007 guidance was still in effect.)
Tactics aside, for immigrant families in Morristown, a small community in eastern Tennessee, the impact of Thursday’s raid was devastating. In a video interview TIRRC posted Sunday, Raul, a 16-year-old, explained that every adult in his life was arrested during the raid — including his mother, his uncle, and his aunt. The teenager described the anguish of facing his 2-year-old sister, knowing that their mother was gone and not knowing when, if ever, she would return. “I don’t know what to tell her,” Raul said, in Spanish. (Raul’s aunt, who has an 8-month-old baby, has since been released, Teatro said).
In an interview with a local ABC News affiliate, Reymunda Lopez said she and her co-workers were herded together among the cattle at the slaughterhouse, told to place their hands behind their heads, and not to resist. “When we got taken to the bathroom, the police officer did a full body scan, searched even under the undergarments,” Lopez said through a translator. Lopez added that she came to Morristown 18 years ago seeking medical care for her son. She said she was released due to her diabetes and blood pressure, but that she was tormented by the fact that she was let go when others were not.
The psychological impact of Thursday’s operation runs deep in Morristown, and likely will for some time. “Yesterday, as we were doing some intake work, a woman was just breaking down, saying she couldn’t stop seeing her co-workers faces, she couldn’t sleep,” Teatro said, adding that the woman’s account spoke to the “lack of dignity” that multiple witnesses recalled experiencing at the hands of the authorities. “Some of the folks that got detained have worked in the factory or the clients for 15 years,” she added, and many are the breadwinners for their families.
While the arrestees included longtime employees of the meatpacking plant, one of the women taken into custody last week was reporting for her first day of work. “They came out of nowhere and started taking people,” the woman, named Maria, said in an interview with TIRRC after she was released. “They didn’t care about the situation, or what they were doing or who they were — they simply took them.”