by Will Racke
Federal agents conducted a multi-state worksite raid at several Midwestern agricultural businesses on Wednesday, arresting more than 100 people including owners and supervisors who allegedly conspired to employ illegal aliens at the expense of American workers.
Homeland Security Investigations — the investigative arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — led the operation against at least 11 companies in Nebraska and Minnesota, the Grand Island Independent reported.
Along with more than 130 suspected illegal workers, agents arrested 14 business owners and managers for allegedly using bogus social security numbers to build a workforce of underpaid, exploitable illegal immigrants. Three other people involved in the scheme were also indicted but not taken into custody during the operation.
The operation was one of the largest worksite raids in HSI’s 15-year history, according to Tracy Cormier, the special agent-in-charge of the agency’s St. Paul field office, which covers Minnesota and Nebraska.
“I would say the amount of criminal warrants that are being executed will be one of the largest for HSI,” Cormier said, according to the Associated Press. “I’m not aware of a bigger one.”
Wednesday’s operation is notable because is targeted business ownership and management, not just illegal workers. Two of HSI’s recent worksite raids, one at a slaughterhouse in Tennessee and one at an Ohio landscaper, nabbed hundreds of illegal immigrants but have not resulted in federal charges against the employers themselves.
The raids are part of an effort by President Donald Trump’s administration to more closely scrutinize companies that hire illegal immigrants or foreign nationals without proper work authorization. In October 2017, then-Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan he would make worksite enforcement investigations a priority in the coming year, and the agency appears to have made good on that promise.
Employer audits and investigations into workplace immigration violations have surged in fiscal year 2018, leading to criminal and civil arrests that far exceed the number recorded in the previous year, according to ICE statistics released in May.
There were 2,282 employer audits — known as I-9 audits — opened between Oct. 1 and May 4, according to the ICE data. That was about a 60 percent increase from the 1,360 audits opened between October 2016 and September 2017. Total worksite investigations also spiked in the same period: ICE’s criminal investigators opened more than 3,500 worksite investigations, compared to 1,716 for all of fiscal year 2017.
The operation in Minnesota and Nebraska was the culmination of a 15-month investigation that also involved state and local investigators. Authorities say the suspects knowingly hired illegal immigrants and forced the workers to cash their paychecks at an illegal remittance business for hefty fees. The managers also withheld the workers’ taxes but never paid them to the government.
The illegal arrangement allowed the companies in question to operate at an advantage over other firms who followed immigration and labor law, authorities said.
“The whole investigation was initiated, basically, because we knew that these businesses were cheating these workers and cheating taxpayers and cheating their competition,” Cormier said, according to the AP.
Some of the workers arrested in the operation will be given notices to appear before an immigration judge and released. Those with criminal background will remain in ICE custody.
Search warrants were served at the following businesses, according to ICE:
– Christensen Farms with numerous locations in Appleton, Minnesota; Sleepy Eye, Minnesota; and Atkinson, Nebraska;
– Elkhorn River Farms in O’Neill, Nebraska
– O’Neill Ventures in O’Neill, Nebraska
– La Herradura Restaurant in O’Neill, Nebraska
– El Mercadito (grocery store) in O’Neill, Nebraska
– A private ranch in O’Neill, Nebraska
– La Herradura Restaurant in Stromsburg, Nebraska
– GJW LLC with three locations in Ainsworth, Nebraska
– J.E. Meurets Grain Company in Ainsworth, Nebraska
– Herd Co Cattle Company in Bartlett, Nebraska
– Long Pine (farm) in Royal, Nebraska
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Will Racke is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation. Follow Will on Twitter.