O’NEILL, Nebraska.— Every other week, Juan Pablo Sánchez Delgado deducated a $50 fee from the $500 checks he paid to his undocumented workers. According to the U.S. Justice Department, in three-and-a-half years he accumulated a fortune of $5.6 million.
Sanchez, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, was arrested August 8, 2018, as part of an ICE Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) raid that targeted three large food processing plants in Nebraska and Minnesota. He had set up companies including a grocery store and a Mexican restaurant to be able to provide undocumented workers to the plants.
The raid also resulted in the arrest of 12 of Sánchez Delgado’s relatives and business partners and 130 undocumented workers. It was one of the largest immigration raids in the Donald Trump era and the biggest ever in those states.
On November 27, Sánchez Delgado was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for money laundering and conspiring to harbor undocumented workers. He’s also required to pay a $100,000 fine and will be deported upon release. Of the 13 defendants, he has received the harshest sentence thus far. The trial, which is ongoing in Lincoln, Nebraska, has involved relatives and friends of Sánchez Delgado and representatives of the companies that used undocumented workers, who in some cases have been acquitted.
Most of the 130 workers detained by ICE have been released in exchange for collaborating with investigators, but they are not permitted to remain in the United States due to their undocumented status. Some 20 of them have since obtained work permits, but the companies where they used to work – where some were arrested – no longer want to hire them directly.
The investigation began a year before the raid and resulted in the arrests of undocumented workers at the agricultural companies Christensen Farms, Elkhorn River Farms LLC, O'Neill Ventures LLC and GJW LLC.
Leonel, who requested we use only his first name for safety reasons, was one of the first undocumented workers arrested as part of the investigation of Sánchez Delgado. He was born in Xela, Guatemala, and has spent 19 years in the United States.
Leonel worked for Juan Pablo Sánchez for four years, washing trucks that Christensen Farms used to transport pigs.
“They were three-level trucks, each level a meter high or less, and we had to get in there on our knees, remove the wood chips, then put water with a pressure hose. And they made us clean there all crouched and uncomfortable to be able to put new pigs,” Leonel said.
Initially he earned $600 every other week, which rose to $800 in 2017, before his arrest. Leonel cashed his checks at El Mercadito, a grocery store owned by Sánchez and his family in O'Neill, Nebraska, a town of 3,700.
The store charged a fee of $30 to $50 per check, depending on the payment amount. To compensate, workers were permitted to take the equivalent amount in merchandise – like fruits, flour, tortillas, canned goods. Products were often expired. In addition to Facebook pages created by Sánchez and his family members, El Mercadito was where undocumented immigrants went to seek work.
“When we arrived at the store, [Juan Pablo] said: ‘Boys, if you need work I have a job for you,’or ‘Talk to me if you need work.’ And then he put us with the potatoes, tomatoes, with the pigs,” Leonel said.
Sánchez Delgado employed workers through two companies – JP and Sons, LLC and J Green Valley, LLC– that were registered to his stepson Antonio de Jesús Castro, and he did not verify his workers’ identities, according to prosecutors. Sanchez-Delgado would also withhold income tax and Social Security withholdings from paychecks, they said.
The companies in his stepson’s name had contracts with Elkhorn River Farms LLC, O'Neill Ventures LLC and GJW LLC, to provide them with labor.
Sánchez Delgado began operations in 2015 in O'Neill, an agricultural town known as “the Irish capital of the United States,” and soon expanded to Minnesota.
Prosecutors did not specify the exact number of immigrants that Sanchez hired, but cited statistics observed on the day of the raid of O'Neill's tomato plant as an example of the far-reaching labor scheme: “On August 2018, the majority of the O'Neill Ventures LLC workforce was foreign workers who could not legally work in the United States.”
Leonel was arrested twice in the year prior to the ICE raid and faced a trial for identity theft, from which he was acquitted. He was unemployed for nearly a year when he got a job an hour's drive from O'Neill.
His wife Carmen and his father-in-law were also arrested during a raid of a potato processing plant. Carmen later obtained a work permit, but the companies that employed her through Sánchez Delgado no longer want to hire her.
“He helped a lot of people, but he didn't know how to do business”
Rosa*, a 60-year-old Mexican woman who was arrested at O'Neill Ventures LLC, where she worked for more than two years, said there were “always rumors in the tomato plant.”
“That immigration was coming, that they were coming for the big fish. And the big fish was (Juan) Pablo,” she said. She was detained from 9:00 a.m. on August 8 until 5:00 a.m. the next day.
“I was one of the last ones they caught. You don't know what to do, my mind went blank,” Rosa recalled in an interview with Univision. “What happened to us was awful because we lost everything.”
Now, she said she feels lost. She hasn’t worked for more than a year, but still needs to find $100 each month for medicines. She fears her immigration process may end in deportation. “We are all walking on a tightrope, and me especially because I am not married and don’t have children here,” she said.
Rosa has spent the last 20 years living between Mexico and the United States, crossing the border for seasonal work. Despite everything that happened, she continues to see Sánchez Delgado and his family as benefactors, because they offered her work in a restaurant when she arrived to town with no money and no place to live.
“They had their little restaurant, they lived modestly. Three or four years ago [Juan Pablo] set up a contracting business and charged the people he got work for and in four years he helped a lot of people. People loved him very much. But he didn't know how to do business,” Rosa said.
Soon the town began to notice changes in Sánchez Delgado, and the expensive things he bought his wife and two daughters. “They had normal cars and suddenly about three years ago, they all bought trucks. And someone said: ‘How does Juan Pablo have so much money?’ His daughter turned 15 and suddenly she had a truck, and they celebrated with the best wine, whiskey, music and everything,” Rosa said.
Of the $5.6 million that Sanchez accumulated under the contractor's labor scheme, the Prosecutor's Office has recovered less than a third: $130,000 in cash found in homes in Nevada and Nebraska and three Las Vegas properties valued at $1.5 million and registered to the company M Castro Properties, LLC, owned by Magdalena Castro Benítez, Sánchez Delgado’s wife.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, Castro-Benítez acted as her husband’s "money manager" in the laundering operation. She was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.
Meanwhile, representatives at the agricultural companies that used Sanchez Delgado's services have not been charged. Mayra Jiménez, secretary of O'Neill Ventures, and John Glidenn, manager of a pig farm owned by GJW, LLC, have so far stated that they had no knowledge that workers were not legally allowed to work in the U.S.
Even if jurors find them guilty of knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants, none would face a prison sentence. According to the law, their penalty would be merely administrative and payable with a fine of up to $3,000 per employee.
*Name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Translated by Jessica Weiss.