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Temporary workers travel by bus to a tomato greenhouse in O’Neill. The temporary workers, who live in an old motel, are “not invested in the community” like many who were caught up in an ICE raid a year ago, a former mayor says.

LINCOLN — The ringleader of a service that had once provided undocumented workers for companies in the O'Neill area testified Thursday that one of the firms, a tomato greenhouse, first suggested that he set up such a company.

Juan Pablo Sanchez-Delgado said that two secretaries from the greenhouse first approached him around 2013 at the Mexican restaurant he owned in O'Neill and complained about their difficulty in finding workers to pick and sort tomatoes in the humid greenhouse.

They told him, he said, that they needed someone in the "middle" between their company and the federal government to provide workers, which he understood to mean illegal immigrants.

At a subsequent meeting, Sanchez-Delgado said, "they explained how much I was going to be paid and how much I was going to make."

The business flourished for several years in a labor-short region of rural Nebraska, providing up to 60 workers for the greenhouse and dozens of others to hog confinements and other businesses until a raid in August 2018 by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. 

Wiretapped phone calls, played in court Thursday, revealed that in the weeks before the raid, Sanchez-Delgado and a secretary at the greenhouse were growing more anxious about the day when "there's not going to be any Mexicans" to fill the jobs.

"One day, ICE will pick us all up," Sanchez-Delgado said. 

His testimony highlighted the fourth day of the federal trial of three people, all customers or friends of Sanchez-Delgado. They are charged with participating in the conspiracy to harbor illegal workers, or launder money for the multimillion businesses headed by the man known as "Pablo" in O'Neill.

He, along with members of his family, were among 130 people detained in the ICE raid in O'Neill. Only three contested their arrests: Atkinson businessman John Good; John Glidden, the manager of hog confinement operations in Ainsworth and Long Pine; and Mayra Jimenez, a secretary at the greenhouse.

Sanchez-Delgado, a Mexican national who had lived in O'Neill for 15 years, has pleaded guilty and faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. He agreed, as part of a plea deal, to testify for prosecutors. His testimony Thursday is key to prosecutors' allegations that the trio knew he was providing illegal workers and they were active assistants in the scheme.

Among testimony Thursday:

» A state liquor regulator said that Good had registered in 2007 as the sole owner and manager of the Mexican restaurant run by Sanchez-Delgado and his wife in O'Neill even though, according to Sanchez-Delgado, Good never worked an hour in the La Herradura or took any pay.

Sanchez-Delgado testified that he knew he and his wife couldn't obtain a liquor license because they were in the country illegally. Testifying somberly in Spanish through an interpreter, he described Good as a "great friend" who had not only obtained the liquor license for them, but had sold them vehicles and kept his name on the deed of their home in O'Neill.

» Glidden, according to Sanchez-Delgado, had to realize that he was getting illegal workers for his hog barns after one of the employees said he'd just obtained paperwork to become a legal U.S. citizen. 

"Did (Glidden) ever ask you to verify the (immigration) status of your workers?" federal prosecutor Lesely Woods asked. "No," responded Sanchez-Delgado. 

Jurors were shown a transcript of a wire-tapped conversation between Sanchez-Delgado and one of his provided employees in which the worker is encouraged to "put in more hours," and on weekends. Others, Sanchez-Delgado said, are working 130-140 hours per week.

Sanchez-Delgado later said that while his workers toiled more hours than the legal employees of the hog barns, the overtime was voluntary. 

» In one wire-tapped phone call, Jimenez, the tomato greenhouse secretary, expressed heightened anxiety that an ICE raid was imminent, and that the greenhouse will have to close. In another call, Good suggested that Sanchez-Delgado just shut down his restaurant for a while and post an "on vacation" sign if he suspected a raid was coming.

But testimony came to a halt shortly after Sanchez-Delgado testified that the idea of creating a company to provide illegal workers had been suggested by Jimenez, who was interpreting for another secretary then working at the greenhouse named "Marilou."

That prompted one of the defense attorneys, Dave Domina, to ask for a mistrial.

Domina said that "Marilou" — whose last name was not revealed in court and who was not indicted after the ICE raid — had not been revealed to defense attorneys as a possible co-conspirator, and thus defense lawyers were prevented from questioning her prior to the trial and preparing for her role.

Woods, the lead federal prosecutor, disputed that Marilou was a surprise, saying that she had been mentioned in pre-trial statements provided by Sanchez-Delgado. Marilou, she added, could be a co-conspirator without being indicted.

After more argument, U.S. District Judge John Gerrard ruled that the mistrial motion was "premature" and that the trial should continue.

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