A tomato greenhouse and potato processing facility in small-town Nebraska were among the businesses raided by immigration authorities Wednesday, August 8, as part of a multistate investigation targeting alleged labor exploitation, while also netting more than 100 suspected undocumented workers.
Dozens of agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations surrounded businesses suspected of illegally employing undocumented immigrants while cheating them out of wages in both Nebraska and Minnesota. The agents executed arrest warrants for 17 people connected to the alleged conspiracy "to exploit alien laborers for profit, fraud, wire fraud and money laundering," ICE said in a statement.
In O'Neill, Nebraska, which is home to about 3,700 people, workers at the tomato greenhouse, potato processing facility and a cattle feedlot were met about 8:45 Wednesday morning by agents who loaded those suspected of being in the country illegally onto coach buses in the parking lot. They were then transported to the parking lot of an ICE office building in neighboring Grand Island, Nebraska, and detained temporarily beneath a large tent, the Omaha World-Herald reported and two immigration advocacy groups told The Washington Post.
In all, 133 workers were arrested for immigration violations as part of the operation.
The raid's crackdown on both the employers and the suspected illegal workers comes amid a recent surge in employer audits by the Trump administration. Tracy Cormier, special agent in charge of Homeland Security's St. Paul, Minnesota, office, told the Lincoln Journal Star that the 15-month investigation was one of the largest in the agency's 15-year history.
"The job magnet in the United States is primarily what draws illegal aliens across our borders," Cormier said in a statement. "This HSI-led criminal investigation has shown that these targeted businesses were knowingly hiring illegal workers to unlawfully line their own pockets by cheating the workers, cheating the taxpayers, and cheating their business competitors."
Federal agents also raided Christensen Farms, one of the largest pork producers in the country located in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, with additional locations in Appleton, Minnesota, and Atkinson, Nebraska, ICE said. A spokesperson for the company told the Associated Press the company was cooperating with authorities but knew of no arrests on its premises.
The raid rocked the town of O'Neill particularly hard, leading school officials, church leaders and community organizers to open their doors to the affected immigrant families. They held a demonstration in town and a candlelight vigil outside the ICE facility where workers were taken.
Amy Shane, superintendent of O'Neill Public Schools, told The Post she caught wind of the raid about 9:30 Wednesday morning and decided to open the elementary school to provide guidance counselors to children whose parents or family members were arrested. About 12 to 15 children showed up. But Shane said she suspects anywhere between 50 to 100 kids in her district may have been separated from a relative or immediate family member given how many people in the community were employed by the raided businesses. Most of the children likely stayed at home, she said.
At least three children were separated from both of their parents, she said. One was in third grade, another in fifth. One was a baby.
Volunteer school employees took them home for the night so they had a place to stay, Shane said.
"We are a close-knit community - we're familiar with almost all of the families," she said. "I think everybody's just sickened and hurting for them at this point. The people that have reached out to me have just wanted to help in every way they can."
The alleged conspiracy to exploit the labor of these workers was laid out in a 14-page indictment unsealed Wednesday. It centered on a man named Juan Pablo Sanchez Delgado, who owned a local grocery store and operated a Mexican restaurant in O'Neill, called La Herradura.
Delgado is accused of recruiting and supplying an illegal workforce to various businesses across Nebraska, including the tomato greenhouse, O'Neill Ventures; the potato processing facility, Elkhorn River Farm; and Herd Co Cattle Company in Bartlett, Nebraska, among others. Delgado allegedly provided fraudulent names and Social Security numbers to the workers - plus help with housing and transportation - and failed to complete the paperwork required by law to hire them legally.
When it was time for payday, Delgado allegedly forced the employees to cash their paychecks at his grocery store, and pay a fee each time. According to the indictment, he withheld a portion of each paycheck and told the workers that he was just withholding federal taxes that would be paid to the government. Prosecutors claim he kept the money.
More than $8 million was funneled into company bank accounts controlled by Delgado at Great Western Bank, according to the indictment. He bought properties across Nebraska and in Las Vegas with the money, prosecutors claim.
One bank employee was indicted for facilitating the transactions, and several employees at the Nebraska businesses with which Delgado contracted were also indicted for their roles. Federal prosecutors claimed they knowingly allowed undocumented immigrants to work at the businesses without legal paperwork.
Attorneys for Delgado and for the other employees at raided businesses could not immediately be reached for comment.
Approximately 80 people protested the ICE raids outside the Holt County courthouse in O'Neill, hoisting signs that said, "Separating families is not Nebraska Nice," and, "America is for Everyone," the Omaha World-Herald reported. Family members had gathered outside the tomato greenhouse trying to contact loved ones or serve up immigration papers to officials before their loved ones were escorted onto the bus, the paper reported.
Yolanda Chavez Nuncio, an advocate with Nebraska Appleseed and board member of the Grand Island Latino Network, told The Post that she spent the day at a local church where a handful of undocumented residents gathered, seeking a safe haven. Their relatives or friends had been arrested, she said, and they feared if they stayed at home ICE would knock on their doors.
She spoke to The Post after attending a candlelight vigil held for the families outside the ICE facility in Grand Island.
"There were a lot of people from a lot of backgrounds here tonight," she said. "Some people think immigration is just a Latino issue. It's not," she said. "It's an issue in this country and an issue for humanity, and an issue that impacts children and families. The biggest impact we see is on children, because they're separated and traumatized."
Shane said school is supposed to start next week, and she expects additional guidance counselors and mental health staff will be on hand to support children affected by the raid.
ICE said that the 133 workers arrested Wednesday were transported to a nearby processing facility and placed in removal proceedings. Several of them, ICE said, were released from custody on humanitarian grounds.
This article was written by Meagan Flynn, a reporter for The Washington Post.