Federal officers descended upon the small Nebraska town of O’Neill early Wednesday morning, detaining over one-hundred illegal immigrants. Workers were taken from rural tomato plants, cattle feedlots and potato processing facilities. A dozen others were detained on suspicion of conspiring to exploit illegal labor for profit, fraud and money laundering.
The Omaha World-Herald reports that warrants were served as far away as Las Vegas and Minnesota. Men were taken out of local restaurants in handcuffs, while law enforcement searched businesses in neighboring towns and villages.
Tracy Cormier, special agent in charge of the Department of Homeland Security’s St. Paul, MN, office, said the raid follows 15 months of intensive investigation. The undertaking is among the biggest and most resource-intensive in the department’s Investigations division’s fifteen-year history.
“I would say the amount of criminal warrants that are being executed will be one of the largest for HIS,” Cormier said. “I’m not aware of a bigger one.”
Cormier claims the businesses targeted were exploiting ‘illegal’ labor, using undocumented migrants to fudge their taxes and gain an edge over competitors.
— ICE (@ICEgov) August 8, 2018
“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,” Cormier said.
The conspiracy is purportedly centered around the owner of a popular Mexican restaurant in O’Neill.
Juan ‘Pablo’ Delgado, writes the World-Herald, ‘allegedly formed illegal companies with his wife and his son to arrange employment for illegal workers’ in Nebraska, Minnesota and Nevada.
Delgado, who owns a restaurant along with a grocery store, helped procure fake Social Security numbers for undocumented workers, as well as transportation and housing.
In exchange for routing migrants to businesses across the Midwest, Delgado extracted a cut of each worker’s pay—a cut he claimed was a transactional fee and ‘tax’ obligation. Delgado may have made over $8 million from the operation.
Locals in O’Neill weren’t sure how to react to the raids. Some residents said they didn’t feel the raids were fair, considering that many workers toiled in harsh conditions for a minimum-wage living.
“These hard-working people, they shouldn’t be doing this to them,” said Maria Ortiz, who works for the Antelope County Sheriff’s Office. “All they want is a better life for their children.
“Who else is going to do this work?” she asked.
O’Neill Public Schools Superintendent Amy Shane seemed skeptical, saying “a dozen upset students and family members” have been offered counseling in the raid’s aftermath.
“This is just rocking our families,” Shane said. “These are good people. These are solid families that are being torn apart right now.”
A protest against the raid drew almost a hundred area residents. One local physician described feeling “numb” in the event’s aftermath.
Not everyone was opposed to the raid, according to the World-Herald. Motel clerk Kylie Krueger said “it needed to happen,” and that the tomato processing plants preferred illegal workers because they’d accept lower wages.
Officers from the Department of Homeland Security Investigations division collaborated with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to make the arrests and serve warrants.