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Worthington workers sue over tactics in immigration raid

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Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers gathered around the entrance to the Swift and Company plant during the December 2006 raid.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

 (AP) - Ten Worthington residents who were working at a meatpacking plant in the southwestern Minnesota city when it was raided by immigration agents are suing the federal government over the alleged abusive and illegal tactics used by the agents, lawyers for the residents said Tuesday.

      The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court here by Centro Legal, an immigrant rights group, claims agents hurled insults at the Hispanic workers, ordered female Hispanic workers to disrobe and "otherwise insulted, abused, and humiliated the plaintiffs on account of their race" during the Dec. 12 raid at the Swift & Co. plant.

"This is about upholding the basic constitutional rights and freedoms of Americans -- whether they are black, white or Latino."

      "This is about upholding the basic constitutional rights and freedoms of Americans -- whether they are black, white or Latino," said Gloria Contreras-Edin, Centro Legal's executive director.

      Tim Counts, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Tuesday that government lawyers hadn't reviewed the lawsuit. But he said agents did nothing wrong during the raid.

      "The worksite enforcement operation at the Worthington plant was done lawfully and in full accordance with ICE policies and procedures," Counts said. "Each person encountered was treated with respect and has been given full access to due process under the laws."

      The plaintiffs, who are either citizens, legal residents or living in the country under what is called temporary protected status, continue to live in Worthington and work at the plant, she said.

      They were all working at the plant when it was raided as part of a government probe into identity theft. They claim they were detained and searched or interrogated without being advised of their constitutional rights, the lawsuit claims. 

White workers, meanwhile, were allowed to move about the plant freely during the raid and weren't subject to unlawful conduct on the part of agents, according to the lawsuit.

Tim Counts
Tim Counts, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

      Among other things, agents are accused of using racial epithets and calling the plaintiffs "coyotes" -- smugglers who help people illegally cross the border. None of the plaintiffs were charged with a crime, Contreras-Edin said.

      The raid was one of several at Swift & Co. plants in six states that led to the arrest of more than 1,200 Hispanic workers, including more than 200 in Worthington, a city of about 15,000 residents near the Iowa border.

      Centro Legal has also filed a lawsuit on behalf of Hispanic residents in Willmar, who claim agents broke into their homes and illegally detained them during a sweep through Willmar in April. The group later added more than a dozen children to its list of plaintiffs in that case.

      Many Hispanic immigrants in that west-central Minnesota community work at a poultry processor owned by Austin-based Hormel Foods Corp.

      ICE has also claimed its agent acted properly in that raid, which led to the arrest of about 50 people. The agency has said several of the people arrested in Willmar falsely claimed to be Puerto Rican citizens while 18 had criminal convictions.       

             (Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)