LINCOLN — In a federal courtroom on Tuesday, the son of illegal immigrants caught up in a raid in O’Neill a year ago explained how his parents worked to avoid detection and deportation.
Antonio Castro said his stepfather and mother listed his name — rather than theirs — as the owner of property or the signature on banking accounts.
After he turned 21, he was asked to be the registered manager for the liquor license for the family’s La Herradura restaurant in O’Neill because the parents lacked the paperwork of legal residents.
When he asked his stepfather why he paid his workers in cash, he was told it was because many of them didn’t have Social Security numbers, and thus were illegally working in the United States.
Castro, now 23, said he had growing fears that his parents would be deported as the summer of 2018 wore on and federal immigration officials began stopping cars to question immigrant workers about his parents’ operation in O’Neill. Once, he even urged his stepfather to go to Las Vegas, where the family owned a handful of homes, to lie low for a while.
“I knew if my dad got caught, he’d be in a lot of trouble and I wouldn’t see him anytime soon,” Castro said.
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The testimony came on the second day of a federal trial of three people charged in an alleged conspiracy targeted in a massive immigration raid in August 2018 on businesses in the O’Neill area. The raid focused on Castro’s stepfather, Juan Carlos Sanchez-Delgado, and his mother, Magdalena Castro Benitez, who ran a staffing service that provided workers — all illegal — for a tomato greenhouse, a potato processing facility, local hog confinement barns and other businesses in the O’Neill area.
The parents also ran a restaurant and a Hispanic grocery store where Castro said he’d withdraw up to $80,000 on paydays to pay workers lined up by the staffing company, JP and Sons.
When these workers were hired, were they asked to provide Social Security numbers or other identification? asked one of the federal prosecutors, Lesley Woods.
“No, ma’am,” Castro responded.
Castro’s stepfather, the purported ringleader of the staffing service and a Mexican national, pleaded guilty in March to conspiring to harbor aliens for financial gain, which is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. Sanchez-Delgado has not yet been sentenced; he has agreed to testify against the three people who have been charged with being part of the conspiracy. Benitez took a plea deal in the case and is scheduled to testify.
The three on trial — John Good, an Atkinson car dealer and businessman; John Glidden, the manager of an Ainsworth hog confinement operation; and Mayra Jimenez, a manager at the O’Neill Ventures tomato greenhouse — have all pleaded not guilty, saying they were unaware that the employees provided were not legal workers.
They are the only ones out of more than 100 people detained in the O’Neill raid to contest the charges. Good, who was the listed owner of La Herradura and also the listed owner of Sanchez-Delgado’s home in O’Neill, has also pleaded not guilty to charges that he laundered money for Sanchez-Delgado and his family.
Earlier on Tuesday, the agent in charge of the O’Neill raid for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Robert Visnaw, testified that local sheriff’s deputies provided the initial tips in April 2017 that led to the raid 16 months later.
Visnaw said that Sanchez-Delgado had been identified as a Mexican citizen, and not a legal U.S. resident, following a traffic stop that spring. Later, in October 2017, two of his staffing service employees came forward, he said, leading to suspicions of a broader conspiracy.
That led to attempts at surveillance of Sanchez-Delgado’s businesses — which Visnaw said proved unsuccessful in a farm town of 3,700 were everyone knew everyone — a “trash pull” of rubbish from the grocery store and eventually to wire taps.
About 5,000 phone calls were captured in less than two months, leading to the enforcement operation, in which more than 400 federal, state and local officers raided businesses in O’Neill, Atkinson, Ainsworth, Long Pine and Stromsburg, as well as in Minnesota.
The defense attorneys on Tuesday asked several times why some others, such as those who owned the hog confinements or managed the tomato plant, were not also indicted. They have claimed that their clients were arrested as “scapegoats” and to justify the massive raid.