The raid on Southeastern Provision in Bean Station, Tenn., follows arrests at 7-Eleven stores and other workplaces nationwide. Last year, the nation’s top immigration official said he had ordered agents to increase the number of work-site inspections and operations by “four or five times” this year, to turn off the job “magnets” that attract immigrants who are in the country illegally and punish employers who hire them.
The National Immigration Law Center and other immigrant advocates said the Tennessee raid was the largest since the George W. Bush administration and deployed many of the tactics of that era, with a surprise blitz of the factory and streets blocked by state and local authorities. ICE officials would not say where the raid ranked in terms of size.
“People are panicked,” said Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, a statewide organization that came to the small town and set up intake centers at local churches where relatives could report their loved ones missing. “People are terrified to drive. People are terrified to leave their homes.”
Of the 86 immigrants arrested on civil immigration charges, ICE released 32 but did not explain why. The remaining 54 were being detained, but the agency did not provide their names or say where they were being held.
The immigration arrests came as authorities executed a federal criminal search warrant at the cattle-slaughter facility outside Knoxville in northeast Tennessee. ICE said it was a joint operation involving its Homeland Security Investigations arm, the Internal Revenue Service and the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
In a federal affidavit, IRS Special Agent Nicholas R. Worsham said the family-run plant is under criminal investigation for allegedly evading taxes, filing false tax returns and hiring immigrants in the country illegally.
He alleged the facility failed to report $8.4 million in wages and to pay at least $2.5 million in payroll taxes for dozens of undocumented workers.
Federal agents began investigating the company months ago after Citizens Bank employees noticed that Southeastern Provision was withdrawing large sums of cash every week — more than $25 million since 2008. Worsham said the plant hired undocumented workers who were paid in cash and subject to harsh conditions, including long hours without overtime and exposure to bleach and other chemicals without protective eyewear.
The affidavit said the company’s president and general manager is James Brantley and the employees involved include his wife, Pamela, and their daughter Kelsey.
Company officials did not return messages left at their offices or the Brantley family home.
A federal official said that the company managers had not been charged as of Friday and that investigators executed the search warrant to gather evidence. The U.S. attorney’s office referred the media to court records, but those were not immediately available online.
In January, ICE fanned out to 7-Eleven stores in the District and 17 states, including California, Maryland, Michigan and New York. Agents arrived at 98 7-Eleven stores to interview employees and deliver audit notifications, making 21 arrests. At the time, agency officials said it was the largest operation targeting an employer in President Trump’s tenure.
ICE conducted 1,360 employee audits last year and arrested more than 300 people for alleged criminal and civil immigration violations. Businesses were ordered to pay $97.6 million in judicial forfeiture, fines and restitution and $7.8 million in civil fines, the agency said.
Immigration hawks have called on the administration to step up work-site enforcement and to require all employers to use the federal E-Verify system, arguing that the Trump administration’s focus on the border will not work if unauthorized immigrants continue to find jobs in the United States.
In 2017, Tennessee required nearly all employers to screen new hires through E-Verify, a federal program that checks that they are authorized to work in the United States.
Last month, border apprehensions surged to 50,308 people, up 37 percent from the month before, prompting Trump to call for an emergency deployment of National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Advocates for immigrants called on Congress to pass an overhaul of immigration law, saying the raids upend long-standing communities and that immigrants are filling jobs that Americans will not do. Despite the surge this month, border apprehensions were at a 46-year low last year.
“This incident points out once again the urgent need for immigration reform — a need that has existed for decades and through the administrations of both political parties,” said the Rev. Chet Artysiewicz, president of Glenmary Home Missioners, a Catholic society that serves Appalachia and the South.
Nick Miroff and Tracy Jan contributed to this report