Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents entered several businesses and plants in Nebraska and Minnesota on Wednesday, arresting 133 foreign workers and 14 business owners.
ICE and residents of the area the businesses where the arrests took place included a tomato processing plant (Ventures Tomato Processing Plan), a potato plant, a dairy farm, a food store (El Mercadito) and a Mexican restaurant (La Herradura), in O'Neill, Nebraska, a small town of about 3,000.
Tracy Cormier, ICE special agent, said it was one of the largest operations in the agency's 15-year history of investigations.
The agent said that "businesses consciously contracted illegal workers to benefit their own pockets by cheating workers, taxpayers and competing businesses," he said in a statement to Univision.
The immigration agency said some of those arrested will be released while awaiting their hearing before the judge, while the rest will be kept in detention. Immigrants who were not in the raids now fear that the arrest of business owners will reveal their names, and make it easier for ICE to find them and stop them.
The operation began shortly before 9:00 am, when the officers arrived at the tomato plant. The company is a 10-acre greenhouse that can produce approximately 250,000 pounds of tomatoes per week.
According to Staci Ramon, a witness who saw the operation and spoke to the Omala World-Herald newspaper, the company employs approximately 80 people picking and packaging tomatoes. "But now they will probably have 20," he added.
Some employees were able to leave the company while the agents continued with the operation. Word spread and other immigrants from the municipality fled to their homes in case ICE arrived at their workplaces.
"The vast majority of these people are workers who just want a better life," Don Trejal told the newspaper.
"Since the rumors about ICE have spread through the center of Nebraska, we have seen how the fear has damaged local communities." said Darcy Tromanhauser, of the Nebraska Appleseed organization. "Parents are afraid to go to work or send their sons and daughters to school."
These types of operations are part of the government's growing campaign against employers who hire people who live illegally in the United States.