A 10-acre hydroponic greenhouse complex and a large potato farming operation in O’Neill, Neb., were two of several agricultural businesses targeted in raids by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.
According to an ICE news release, O’Neill Ventures, a greenhouse in north-central Nebraska, and potato operation Elkhorn River Farms, were two sites in a series of warrants served Aug. 8 on 17 individuals connected to an alleged criminal conspiracy to exploit unauthorized laborers for profit; fraud; wire fraud; and money laundering in Nebraska and Minnesota.
Federal officials said the enforcement action is part of a 15-month, ongoing Homeland Security investigation based on evidence that these companies allegedly knowingly hired unauthorized workers, and that many of these workers use fraudulent identification belonging to U.S. citizens.
According to a 2015 report on Grownebraska.com, Elkhorn River Farms produced 4,000 acres of russet potatoes for the fresh retail and foodservice markets in the O’Neill, Atkinson, and Basset areas of Holt and Rock counties in Nebraska.
The Grand Island Independent online reported Aug. 8 that the O’Neill Ventures hydroponic greenhouse complex is capable of producing 250,000 pounds of tomatoes a week.
Federal immigration enforcement officers surrounded the facility the morning of Aug. 8. Quoting an employee, The Independent reported about 80 employees worked at the plant.
Only about 20 remained after the raid, the employee told the news outlet.
Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said there have been reports of ICE raids on a number of agricultural operations this year.
“It’s concerning, in particular when you are in the part of the year where you are either harvesting your crops or your preparing to harvest your crops and with near-record low unemployment in the U.S.,” he said. “There are fewer and fewer Americans lining up to do seasonal ag jobs.”
The release from Immigration and Customs Enforcement said federal authorities also served search warrants for work site hiring violations at agricultural firms in Nebraska and Minnesota, and federal document search warrants at locations throughout Nebraska; in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota; Appleton, Minnesota; and Las Vegas.
ICE officials said that during the execution of search warrants on those firms Aug. 8, 133 unauthorized workers were administratively arrested for immigration violations.
Federal law enforcement officers believe the alleged conspirators, 17 individuals located in multiple states, colluded to create an unauthorized workforce in their businesses, according to the release.
The release said the unauthorized workers were allegedly required to cash their paychecks at an illegal remittance business for a fee, have tax money deducted from their pay even though this money was never paid to the government, and were coerced to remain quiet about this criminal activity.