A large federal law enforcement operation conducted Wednesday targeted businesses in Nebraska and Minnesota that officials say knowingly hired — and mistreated — illegal immigrant workers.
The investigative arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security Investigations, led the operation that saw about a dozen businesses and plants raided and 17 business owners and managers indicted for fraud, wire fraud and money laundering.
Of those, 14 were taken into custody Wednesday and three were still being sought. Authorities also arrested more than 130 workers at various businesses, busing them to Grand Island, Nebraska, to be questioned and processed.
Most of the arrests occurred in northern Nebraska and southern Minnesota. Several of the businesses were in O’Neill, Nebraska, a town of about 3,000 about 160 miles northwest of Omaha. Officials said they were still looking to take three owners or managers into custody as part of the operation.
Special agent in charge Tracy Cormier described the operation as one of the largest in Homeland Security Investigations’ 15-year history. Between 350 and 400 federal, state and local law enforcement officers worked together on the arrests, she said.
The focus of the operation is unusual in that it targeted business operators for arrest. Most immigration raids have just targeted workers suspected of being in the country illegally.
“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.
The businesses engaged in a scheme that used fraudulent names and Social Security numbers to employ people in the country illegally, she said. The businesses used “force, fraud, coercion, threat of arrest and/or deportation” to exploit the workers, Cormier said.
The business that hired out the immigrants also forced the workers to cash their paychecks with that business for an exorbitant fee, officials said, and withheld taxes from workers’ pay without paying those taxes to the government.
“It kind of reminds us of the revival of the old ‘company store’ policy, where it used to keep the coal miners indebted to the company for all kinds of services … like check cashing,” she said.
Also arrested were 133 workers suspected of being in the country illegally, according to ICE. Some will be issued notices to appear before an immigration judge and released, while those with criminal backgrounds will remain in ICE custody.
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The raids come as President Donald Trump’s administration has been carrying out high-profile immigration enforcement actions against employers.
On Wednesday, investigators served warrants at Elkhorn River Farms, hydroponic tomato grower O’Neill Ventures, La Herradura restaurant and grocery store El Mercadito, all in O’Neill. A private ranch outside O’Neill also was searched.
Pork producing giant Christensen Farms saw search warrants served at its headquarters in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, its truck wash facility in Appleton, Minnesota and a producer plant in Atkinson, Nebraska. Other businesses raided were in Stromsburg, Ainsworth, Bartlett and Royal, all in Nebraska.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.