More than 130 undocumented workers were arrested in a multistate workplace raid led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Wednesday, the latest in the Trump administration’s ramp-up of such operations nationwide.
ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations agents served criminal arrest warrants on 17 individuals and search warrants on multiple farms, restaurants, stores, and factories stretching from Minnesota to Nebraska on Wednesday, according to a statement from the agency. The raids were the result of a 15-month investigation into companies allegedly knowingly hiring undocumented workers.
The agency alleges that the individuals were connected to a “criminal conspiracy to exploit illegal alien laborers for profit, fraud, wire fraud and money laundering.”
During the raid, ICE came across 133 undocumented workers who were then arrested on civil immigration charges, according to the statement. While some were released for humanitarian reasons, others were detained. These workers, ICE said, were “exploited by the conspirators through force, coercion, or threat of arrest and/or deportation.”
The arrest of the undocumented immigrants is part of a larger shift, as the Trump administration places renewed focus on workplace violations. Compared with the previous fiscal year, ICE has made more than five times as many immigration arrests at workplaces this year.
Supporters believe the crackdown is necessary in order to protect jobs for American workers, but the increase in raids has struck fear among advocates and immigrant communities across the country.
“This is certainly a departure from what we did — we focused on bad actors and getting criminal cases. Clearly when you jam up civil immigration dockets with individuals like these people who are just showing up for work and are probably victims of exploitation then that drains resources from ICE’s ability to focus on the bad guys,” said John Sandweg, who was acting director of ICE from 2013 to 2014.
However, he also praised the underlying criminal case that targeted the organizers of the hiring scheme.
Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, noted that workplace arrests began to fall during the latter years of the Obama administration as it shifted its approach to auditing employers, which the Trump administration is also doing.
“President Obama focused more on auditing employers than on high-profile enforcement actions. His administration thus purposely shifted the focus of enforcement on employers and away from unauthorized workers,” she said. “By focusing on arresting employees, the administration is keeping with their broader strategy of keeping unauthorized immigrants on edge. They have made it clear that the workplace is not a safe space for immigrants.”
Immigration officials believe that “the job magnet” pulls undocumented immigrants to the country.
“This HSI-led criminal investigation has shown that these targeted businesses were knowingly hiring illegal workers to unlawfully line their own pockets by cheating the workers, cheating the taxpayers, and cheating their business competitors,” the ICE statement quoted Special Agent in Charge Tracy J. Cormier as saying.
Advocates on the ground in Nebraska were scrambling Wednesday to assist workers who were detained.
“The Trump administration’s war on immigrants was waged in Central Nebraska today,” said Rose Godinez, legal and policy counsel for the ACLU of Nebraska.
Darcy Tromanhauser, immigrants & communities director of Nebraska Appleseed, said the raid will leave lasting damage across the area.
“They tear apart hard-working families and spread panic throughout towns across our state. As rumors of an increased ICE presence have recently spread across central Nebraska, we’ve seen how the fear has hurt local communities,” she said. “Parents become afraid to go to work or even send their children to school. It leaves a scar across entire towns. The White House’s cruel anti-immigrant policies aren’t just hurting families at our southern border, they are causing deep pain right here at home.”