Raids rattle O’Neill: Workers detained as feds target alleged conspiracy to exploit illegal labor
O’NEILL, Neb. — Federal immigration enforcement officers swept into this rural area on Wednesday morning, detaining dozens of workers from a local tomato greenhouse complex, a potato processing facility and a cattle feedlot.
In Nebraska and elsewhere, the operation by Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials snared 133 workers suspected of being in the country illegally, as well as 17 people connected to an alleged conspiracy to exploit illegal labor for profit, fraud and money laundering.
Federal search warrants were served as far away as Las Vegas and Minnesota in connection with the conspiracy. One man was led in handcuffs out of an O’Neill Mexican restaurant, and search warrants were also served at businesses or farms in Ainsworth, Bartlett, Royal and Stromsburg.
Tracy Cormier, special agent in charge of Homeland Security’s St. Paul, Minnesota, office, said the raid culminated 15 months of investigation and described the operation as one of the largest in Homeland Security Investigations’ 15-year history.
“I would say the amount of criminal warrants that are being executed will be one of the largest for HSI,” Cormier said. “I’m not aware of a bigger one.
“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.”
The conspiracy, according to a federal court indictment, revolved around the owner of a popular O’Neill Mexican restaurant, La Herradura, and grocery store.
Juan “Pablo” Delgado allegedly formed companies with his wife and son to arrange employment for illegal workers in Nebraska, Minnesota and Nevada. He provided them with fake names and Social Security numbers, as well as transportation and housing.
In exchange, Delgado collected a portion of the workers’ checks as fees and to purportedly pay taxes.
The indictment said that $8 million was funneled through Delgado’s account at Great Western Bank.
Also indicted were supervisors at the tomato and potato operations, a car salesman from Atkinson who was in business with Delgado and an employee at the bank.
The morning raid at O’Neill Ventures prompted condemnation from some groups and sparked a chaotic and emotional scene outside the 10-acre greenhouse.
Armed ICE officers in flak jackets ringed the facility and Nebraska state troopers blocked the entrance as the estimated 80 employees were screened and either released or placed on a Greyhound-sized bus .
One woman sobbed after being turned away at the entrance in an attempt to provide immigration papers for her boyfriend. Another cried, burying her face in her hands, as she unsuccessfully tried to contact her mother via cellphone inside the greenhouse, which can produce 250,000 pounds of hydroponically grown tomatoes a week.
Maria Ortiz, who works at the Antelope County Sheriff’s Office in Neligh, tried to console the crying daughter of the worker as they stood along U.S. Highway 281, watching the raid unfold.
Ortiz said that if workers are wanted for crimes, they should be detained but that arresting other employees, who work for minimal wages in searing hot greenhouses, was wrong.
“These hardworking people, they shouldn’t be doing this to them. ... All they want is a better life for their children,” she said. “Who else is going to do this work?”
At the local public school, which is still on summer break, the doors were opened to offer counseling to about a dozen upset students and family members.
“This is just rocking our families,” said O’Neill Public Schools Superintendent Amy Shane. “These are good people. These are solid families that are being torn apart right now.”
By 10 p.m. Wednesday, at least one van had brought workers back to O’Neill to be reunited with their families.
A protest was held later in the afternoon at the Holt County Courthouse, and prayers were offered at the local Catholic church.
The protest drew about 80 people carrying signs reading “Separating families is not Nebraska Nice” and “America is for Everyone.” Speakers urged others to contact congressional representatives to urge changes to immigration law.
“We’re all numb,” said Dr. Barbie Gutshall, a local physician. She said everyone knew someone affected by the raid, which has left many people afraid to leave their homes.
There was also support for the raid in O’Neill. “It needed to happen,” said motel clerk Kylie Krueger.
She said the tomato plant preferred the illegal workers, because they would work for less.
It was not immediately clear how many people were detained in and around O’Neill. One employee said about 80 people were employed at the greenhouse and perhaps only 20 were left.
About 20 people were working at the Elkhorn River Farms potato plant east of O’Neill, which is between its busier planting and harvest seasons.
A person who answered the phone at the Herd Co. feedlot near Bartlett, Nebraska, hung up when a reporter called.
Officials with the greenhouse and potato plant did not return phone messages.
In O’Neill, ICE personnel could be seen frisking a man in a Mexican grocery store and leading another man in handcuffs out of a restaurant. A closed sign was posted on the door. ICE officials also visited a local home and an apartment building.
A spokeswoman for Christensen Farms, a hog operation near Atkinson, Nebraska, said ICE personnel stopped there Wednesday and at their home office in Minnesota, seeking verification of workers’ status. No workers were detained. It did, however, disrupt operations at the farm, said spokeswoman Amber Portner.
Gov. Pete Ricketts said Wednesday that state officials were aware of the raid but that it was a federal operation.
Don Tejral of O’Neill, who used to work at a meatpacking plant in Grand Island, expressed frustration as he watched the raid unfold. If many workers are jailed, two large local employers will be shut down, harming local businesses.
There should be a means for such workers to be employed legally in the U.S., he said.
“Most of these people are hardworking. They just want to better their lives,” Tejral said.
One O’Neill businessman, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said the raid would harm the rural town of 3,700, which is about an hour’s drive west of Norfolk.
“It’s 60 less paychecks that will be spent in O’Neill,” the man said.
The raid prompted condemnation from the ACLU of Nebraska and the Lincoln-based Nebraska Appleseed, which serves immigrants, as a horrible disruption for businesses and families.
“The Trump administration’s war on immigrants visited Central Nebraska today,” said Rose Godinez, an ACLU attorney.
Lazaro Arturo Spindola, the head of the Nebraska Latino American Commission, also questioned what was gained by detaining workers from tomato and potato plants and a feedlot. He said that a 2010 immigration raid cost taxpayers $23,482 per detainee.
Legal teams to assist those who were detained headed to Grand Island, where a temporary detention facility — a tent ringed by a chain-link fence — was erected at an ICE office. Some detainees were taken to Minnesota.
The Hispanic population of O’Neill is small but increasing, and immigrants have been a common sight during potato planting and harvesting seasons.
World-Herald staff writers Jeffrey Robb and Erin Grace contributed to this report, which also includes material from the Associated Press.