What originally began as a criminal investigation into an East Tennessee slaughterhouse turned into a massive immigration operation on Thursday, as agents discovered nearly 100 illegal immigrants in the employ of Southeast Provisions.
During the course of the raid, 97 workers subject to deportation were rounded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. Ten of the detained, writes WATE.com, were arrested on federal criminal charges. Another was taken into custody for state violations and 86 for ‘administrative’ offenses.
Since Thursday, 32 of the immigrants arrested on administrative charges have been released.
According to WATE and KnoxNews.com, the investigation began after bank employees tipped off federal agents about strange account activity. Workers and executives from Southeast Provisions were taking out massive sums of cash on the regular. The company’s president, James Brantley, withdrew a total of $25 million in hard currency since 2008, claiming it was used for ‘payroll purposes.’
When bank officials toured Southeast’s facilities, they were told that the brunt of the labor force was ‘Hispanic’ and compensated with cash. Financial officers saw a vault being readied for installation.
Soon after, law enforcement asked an informant – himself an illegal immigrant – to apply for a position at Southeast. Without supplying any paperwork or residency documents, the man – referred to only as Cl-1 – was hired on as a supervisor, considering his fluency in English and Spanish.
Cl-1 says he was offered a flat hourly rate of $10 per hour, paid weekly in cash.
As he kept logging more and more hours, Cl-1 continued to provide information to the Internal Revenue Services and law enforcement personnel. He reported seeing ‘dozens’ of Hispanic workers being paid under-the-table.
But worse than that, he claims, were exploitative workplace policies. Undocumented workers were forced into overtime, staying hours late on shift without being offered any additional compensation.
Exposure to hazardous chemicals was commonplace but Southeast didn’t provide any protective gear for its unauthorized workers.
Despite Southeast’s rough treatment of its migrant workers, most immigration advocates condemned ICE and its affiliates for raiding and arresting laborers. The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition wrote a written complaint alleging that workers “reported rough treatment and detention despite having work authorization.”
However, ICE contends that most of the migrants it detained didn’t meet the legal requirements to work within the United States.
“Children were left without primary caretakers and local churches have provided sanctuary for dozens of others,” alleged the Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
KnoxNews.com reports that the group’s co-executive director, Stephanie Teatro, blamed the Trump administration for the raid and its negative effects.
“Our communities have lived under intense fear since the Trump administration began, and this raid – coupled with local law enforcement involvement – will send shockwaves across the country,” she said.