O'Neill: mixed emotions one year after ICE raids

This water tower dominates the skyline in O'Neill. (All photos by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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August 8, 2019 - 6:45am

It’s been a year since Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, staged a series of raids in O’Neill, Nebraska and elsewhere, arresting 133 people for immigration violations. And while O’Neill has moved on, people there look back with mixed emotions.

On August 8, 2018, ICE agents raided a tomato-growing plant, a potato processing plant, a restaurant, feedlot and farms in and around O’Neill, a town of about 3,600 people in north-central Nebraska.  Raids were also staged at farms in Minnesota.  In all, 133 people were arrested – many from Mexico and Guatemala -- for immigration violations. Law enforcement also arrested 17 people for exploiting illegal alien laborers for profit.

Bill Price (All photos by Fred Knapp, NET News)


Bill Price, then mayor of O’Neill, said then he had mixed emotions – glad the exploitation was ending, sad for families broken apart – and the community itself was split. A year later, Price says the community has, by and large, moved on.

“A lot of those people that were victims or part of that have left the area because they don’t have any jobs anymore, so they’ve transitioned somewhere else. Everybody just kind of lives their daily lives, I guess. It was kind of the big event for a while and now it’s just gone,” Price said.

Fran Perez

But not for everyone. Fran Perez graduated from O’Neill High School this year.

“It’s kind of been a crazy year. Up and down a lot. Lost some friends. Some friends moved away, trying to get away from this stuff,” Perez said.

For a while, Perez, who was born in the U.S., was worried about his own mother, who’s from Mexico. But although she was questioned by ICE, Perez says her situation is now good, helped by the fact he and his sister are U.S. citizens.

Becky Schmeichel

Becky Schmeichel, who teaches English at St. Mary’s High School in O’Neill, has been an outspoken critic of illegal immigration. But Schmeichel says many of those caught in the raid entered the country legally, then lost their status.

Schmeichel said she asked one what happened.

“The one guy said, ‘I was here on a visa. I had my green card. I let it lapse.’ Why? Why in God’s name would you do that? And he said, ‘Because I can’t get off work.’ You have to go to Lincoln…you can’t just go online and say ‘I want to renew this.'”

Some people charged with harboring people in the country illegally, or referring them for employment, have pled guilty, and court cases are still proceeding against officials of companies that hired them. Meanwhile, some of the workers who were arrested have come back to O’Neill.

Brian Loy

Pastor Brian Loy of O’Neill’s United Methodist Church, which houses a food pantry, says he still sees lots of people who were caught up in the raids.

“There’s about 50-60 families we deal with that are immigrant-based.  We are feeding between 300 and 400 people out of our church every week right now,” Loy said.

That includes many non-immigrants who lost jobs in this year’s flooding. But it also includes immigrants who came back, but are out of work and struggling to get by while they try and get work visas.

There have been changes at the companies where they worked, too. 

“They have reestablished the tomato plant with the temporary workers, and they rotate in and out, and the potato plant closed down,” former Mayor Price said. 

Officials at O’Neill Ventures, the tomato plant, declined comment, citing ongoing legal proceedings. Last November, the company bought a former motel in town, and a bus carries workers from there to the plant.

Elkhorn River Farms, which ran the potato plant, announced in April it was discontinuing packing operations there and would concentrate on growing potatoes instead. Anne Struthers, a spokeswoman for R.D. Offutt, the plant’s parent company, said the ICE raids had absolutely no effect on the decision, saying plans were already in place beforehand. 

Amy Shane, superintendent for O’Neill Public Schools, says immigrant workers play an important role in the local economy.

Amy Shane

“It’s certainly a workforce that’s needed.   People… are always looking for good, reliable labor. It’s tough to find. And typically these folks were really good as far as showing up to work, doing their best every day, those kinds of things. We can sure use those kinds of laborers in the agriculture business. But at this point it’s pretty tough for them to get here legally,” Shane said.

On the day of the raids, Shane kept the schools open as a refuge for children whose parents had been arrested. Schmeichel said that was part of an overreaction.

“There was a whole ‘Oh, these kids are dying in front of our eyes because their parents were taken away and they’re going to starve to death.’ I mean, it was a huge hoorah. I just went ‘What?’ For every person that was taken that had kids, there was three or four family members and/or good friends that would have immediately taken those kids in,” she said.

Perez, a student at the time, said people were there for him, both from within and outside the Latino community.

“They reached out, reaching me to help me out. Gave me a place to stay if I needed one. Gave me and my little sister food when we needed it. A really good group of friends. I owe ‘em a lot,” Perez said.

Still, Perez said, people were traumatized.

“There’s a lot of little kids that got affected, like 5-year-olds, younger kids that got affected by this – broke up their families, like they went weeks without seeing their parents. Stuff like that,” he said.

Workers leaving the bus at the tomato plant in O'Neill. 

As that immediate trauma has receded, residents are left grappling with mixed emotions. Becky Schmeichel says she thinks many people, like her, are divided between support for the rule of law, and compassion for immigrants facing trouble in their home countries.

“Legal is legal. Illegal is illegal. Go through the steps to come here. But it’s really hard,” Schmeichel said.

And Brian Loy, despite his work helping immigrants, said he wants the influx to stop.

“They’re coming here with a dream of attaining citizenship, providing for their families. And right now under the system the way it’s set up, there is no long-term future. We’ve got to fix it,” Loy said.

What that fix might be, O’Neill and the rest of the country wait to see.



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