Herded with other workers into a cafeteria, searched and handcuffed without a warrant -- Graves held up the handcuffs at a Washington press conference –and quizzed about whether he knew how to get from Iowa to Mississippi, Graves and 400 other Marshalltown workers were held incommunicado by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents for 6-12 hours.
All were searched, all were questioned, all were denied access to lawyers, most were denied food, most were denied even going to the bathroom. So were 12,000 Swift & Co. workers at plants in Hyrum, Utah; Cactus, Texas; Greeley, Colo.; Grand Island, Neb.; and Worthington, Minn.
Ultimately, 65 people were charged with identity theft and about 1,200 charged with immigration violations. The raids separated families and left behind scars and fear in local communities.
On Wednesday, nine months after the raids, workers and their union – the United Food & Commercial Workers – filed a class action suit in federal court in Amarillo, Texas, to stop the ICE raids for good. And they told their stories to the public at a press conference in Washington.
The suit, against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, charged the agency rampantly and routinely violated federal law and the U.S. Constitution in the roundups at the Swift plants. It demands the court permanently force a halt to such sweeping raids without warrants or even cause.
The details that Graves of UFCW Local 1149, Sonia Mendoza of Local 540 in Cactus, Pasqual Talamentes of Local 22 in Grand Island and Sergio Rodriguez of Local 7 in Greeley provided went far beyond just the description of a mass roundup.
"There were 400 people there for eight hours, and two restrooms," Graves said of the Marshalltown roundup. "And we had nothing to eat. I'm a U.S. citizen, I'm black and he (the agent) had me in handcuffs for hours that day for no reason at all."
In Greeley, Rodriguez said, ICE agents fired rifles into the air to scare and threaten the workers. At other plants, the workers were herded to buses and vans by gun-toting agents. Few workers were allowed to take bathroom breaks while being held anywhere from 4 to 12 hours each. None got to see a lawyer, even though UFCW sent lawyers to help them. ICE agents barred the lawyers.
At two plants, workers got a skimpy meal hours later. When after 10 hours they fed Rodriguez, who by then had been bused to Denver with the others, "They gave me a sub, pop and potato chips. And I asked 'How am I supposed to eat with handcuffs on?'" The ICE agents refused to remove them.
Mendoza said she and other female workers were mistreated in other ways by "rude" and "unprofessional" agents. Besides the detention, the agents -- all male -- patted down the women in searches. When she asked for a female agent "I was told; 'We don't have women.'" Agents went with workers to bathrooms, if they let them go at all.
"And the agent had no ID" except for his gun, Mendoza added. "The whole plant felt we were under house arrest. We wondered: 'Do they have the right to use these guns and kill people?'"
Actions like that and the mass roundups last December prompted the union to file the class action suit, UFCW President Joe Hansen and constitutional law attorney Peter Schey said. That's not just to defend the workers victimized in the roundups but to protect other workers from similar ICE raids in the future.
"Our purpose is to protect all workers in all industries and to protect all Americans (his emphasis)," Hansen declared. Workers in the U.S. "expect their constitutional rights will not be violated as a result of going to work….Citizens and legal residents do not expect government agents will storm their workplaces in riot gear with guns drawn.
"They do not expect to be rounded up, detained, handcuffed and battered by government agents," Hansen said. One worker in the suit, Alicia Rodriguez of the Marshalltown plant, was "assaulted and battered by at least one agent," the suit alleges.
"They do not expect government agents to deny them contact with their families, leaving their children stranded at schools and day care centers and they do not expect to be denied legal representation," Hansen said. "And workers in America do not expect such conduct because this is America and there is a constitution to protect their rights."
Added Schey: "Unlike Iran and North Korea, we have a 4th Amendment" to the Constitution, barring unreasonable searches and seizures without warrants. ICE "violated the law they were sworn to uphold."
The ICE raids not only had a devastating impact on workers, but also on Swift & Co., one of the legendary names in meatpacking. Forced to shutdown for several days because of the raids, the six plants never recovered. Swift has been sold to a Brazilian meatpacker and many of the workers in the six plants have left. While still covered by UFCW contracts, the plants are skeletons of themselves and the future is uncertain, workers at the press conference said afterwards.
Mark Gruenberg writes for Press Associates, Inc., news service. Used by permission.
For more information
Visit the Workday Minnesota special section on the Swift raids and their aftermath