LINCOLN — Seventy-hour workweeks. No benefits, health insurance, overtime pay or vacation days. Up to a $65 fee taken out of workers’ paychecks. Wages that amounted to lower than minimum wage.

A special agent for Homeland Security Investigations revealed these and other details in federal court Tuesday on the alleged scheme by 17 people to provide illegal labor to companies. The criminal arrests were in addition to the detention of more than 118 workers suspected of being in the country illegally after an immigration raid in O’Neill and other cities last Wednesday.

Robert Visnaw's testimony came Tuesday during hearings to determine whether some of the defendants should be detained or released while awaiting trial. Several family members cried in the hallway after their loved ones were deemed a flight risk and were ordered detained by U.S. Magistrate Judge Cheryl Zwart.

The investigation into the employment arrangement began in April 2017, the agent testified. Authorities determined that Juan Pablo Sanchez Delgado was the “overall leader” and had hired 100 to 150 workers, some with prior criminal histories, who live in the U.S. without legal permission.

The majority of workers, some who worked up to 10 hours a day, seven days a week, cashed their payroll checks at El Mercadito, a grocery store owned by Delgado, Visnaw said. Depending on the money earned, about $45 to $65 was taken from the employees’ checks as a fee for cashing them, Visnaw testified.

In a wiretap of a phone that Delgado used for one of his companies, J Green Valley LLC, Delgado admonished his son for allowing three employees to cash their checks at other places, the agent said.

Delgado has offered to plead guilty if the government drops charges against his family members. He also has said that current and past Holt County attorneys helped him set up the limited liability corporations that ran his staffing agency.

Current Holt County Attorney Brent Kelly said he has never represented Delgado.

Fabian De Jesus Castro Hernandez testified Tuesday in support of releasing his fiancée, Suni Sarahi Sanchez Delgado, who is Delgado’s sister. Castro Hernandez’s parents also are charged in connection with the case.

He said that Suni teaches religion classes to children at their Catholic church in Atkinson and that she is respected in the community. After the hearing, when the judge ruled that she would remain detained, he consoled her 12-year-old and 9-year-old children in the hallway.

“If she is to be deported, we’d move back and go to Mexico,” he said. “These kids have to have their mom at least.”

Fabian’s brother, Francisco Castro Hernandez, said they had hoped Delgado’s offer would mean the rest of the family would be released, because they are “innocent bystanders.”

“I don’t even know how to react. I’m truly devastated,” he said. “I don’t know whether to cry or faint.”

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Alia Conley covers breaking news, crime, crime trends, the Omaha Police Department and initial court hearings. Follow her on Twitter @aliavalentine. Phone: 402-444-1068.

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