LINCOLN — The details behind a 2018 immigration raid in O’Neill were played out in federal court Monday as a trio of those charged contested allegations that they harbored and hired illegal workers.
The defense strategies of John Good, an Atkinson businessman, John Glidden, the manager of an Ainsworth hog confinement operation, and Mayra Jimenez, a manager at an O’Neill tomato greenhouse all centered on one theme — they were unaware that they were helping and hiring illegal immigrants.
“Do not let this man become a scapegoat,” said Glidden’s attorney, Carlos Monzon of Lincoln, who said federal immigration enforcers arrested Glidden “to prove that their two-year investigation was worth it.”
Omaha trial attorney Dave Domina, Good’s lawyer, said his client didn’t “harbor” an O’Neill couple accused of providing illegal workers to local companies, and was unaware that was happening. Good, he said, committed only “acts of kindness” by helping Juan Pablo Sanchez-Delgado and his wife open a restaurant in O’Neill and purchase a home.
“This is their harboring case?” Domina said, voice rising, as he pointed at federal prosecutors.
Monday marked the opening arguments in the criminal cases against the trio, who are accused of harboring illegal immigrants, conspiracy to harbor and hire illegal workers, and money laundering. The three are the only defendants who have contested their charges in court among about 130 workers and managers detained during an August 2018 Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid centered in O’Neill.
The main target of the raid was an “employment service” operated by Sanchez-Delgado that provided illegal workers — for a cut of their paychecks — to the local tomato plant, a potato processor, a feedlot, hog barns and other local businesses.
The operation brought in more than $5 million in profits, ICE alleged, which was used by Sanchez-Delgado to purchase homes in O’Neill and Las Vegas and a restaurant and grocery store in O’Neill, and to provide workers as far away as Minnesota and Nevada.
“North-central Nebraska was ground zero for a criminal network that hired illegal aliens for years,” Lesley Woods, an assistant U.S. attorney, said during her opening arguments.
Sanchez-Delgado has pleaded guilty to conspiring to harbor aliens.
Woods said that during the trial, jurors will hear wiretapped phone calls that show how Sanchez-Delgado got “a lot of help” from the three defendants. Jurors will also hear from workers who will testify that they were exploited by working longer hours, for lower pay, than legal workers, Woods said. One worked more than 50 days straight in Glidden’s hog barns, she said.
“This is a population that doesn’t have anyone to complain to,” Woods said.
But Glidden’s attorney disputed that. During his opening statement, Monzon said that while the defendants will be painted as “willfully blind” to the hiring of illegal workers, Sanchez-Delgado “kept it secret” that the workers he was providing weren’t citizens or documented temporary workers.
Monzon said his client paid $13 to $15 an hour for the workers, which was more than the local average wage, and more than would paid illegal workers. He said the workers and Sanchez-Delgado told him that they wanted to work extra hours so they had more money to send back to their homelands.
Domina said Good was a longtime businessman and Navy veteran who didn’t take “a thin dime” in profits after setting up Sanchez-Delgado with a home and restaurant in O’Neill. The lawyer said Good never took a free meal from La Herradura, despite arranging for its liquor license and checking account.
Domina held up a 2016 photograph from the front page of the Holt County Independent newspaper that showed Sanchez-Delgado and his wife, with Good at their side, cutting a ribbon on the new eatery.
“This is a chamber of commerce event,” Domina told jurors. “This is an American success story.”
In a pretrial motion, the attorney had argued that Good had helped the couple because of his “Christian convictions.” But U.S. District Judge John Gerrard rejected the use of that argument, ruling that using religious beliefs to justify breaking the law had been tossed out by prior courts.
Jimenez, according to her lawyer, Candice Wooster of Lincoln, was a “middleman” at the tomato plant and not responsible for checking the immigration documents of workers provided by Sanchez-Delgado.
But Woods, the prosecutor, told jurors to ask themselves how Sanchez-Delgado could pull off a years-long operation of providing illegal workers without help from others?
The trial, at the U.S. District Court in Lincoln, is expected to continue into next week.