‘They’re the lifeblood’: O’Neill raid highlights importance of growing immigrant workforce to agriculture

‘They’re the lifeblood’: O’Neill raid highlights importance of growing immigrant workforce to agriculture
An employee arrives to work at O’Neill Ventures in O’Neill, Nebraska, on Thursday, a day after about two-thirds of the company’s workforce was hauled away. (World-Herald News Service)

O’NEILL — On Thursday, Bryan Corkle helped load up a shipment of cattle on his father’s ranch near here.

Their next stop would be a feedlot, where the cattle will be fattened up for market and, later, the supermarket.

And more and more of the workers at those feedlots, Corkle said, will be immigrants.

“They’re the lifeblood,” he said of the immigrant workers. “That’s the reality of the industry right now.”

The immigration enforcement action last week in this north-central Nebraska ranching community of 3,700 illuminated how important immigrant workers have become in Nebraska, particularly to the state’s largest industry, agriculture.

More than 130 workers were snared in the operation, which was focused on a group that allegedly conspired to exploit, and profit from, the immigrant laborers.

The raid left a shortage of workers at a local hydroponic tomato greenhouse, where 250,000 pounds of tomatoes are picked and packed each week, and at one of the state’s largest cattle feedlots, where reportedly 70,000 cattle a day are watered and fed.

In rural Holt County, where the unemployment rate is 2.6 percent, the struggle to find people in a tight labor market to fill the often hard, dirty and low-paying jobs like feeding cattle or picking tomatoes has people turning to immigrants.

“Labor is tough,” said rancher Kirk Shane, as he directed traffic at the Holt County Fair in Chambers. “I remember when we could hire kids for the summer. Now you can’t get them — they’re either too busy with sports or you can’t rely on them.”

The “now hiring” signs outside of the O’Neill Ventures tomato greenhouse have been posted there for several weeks, and now they carry even more urgency after perhaps two-thirds of the company’s workforce was hauled away on Wednesday.

Out at the massive Herd Co. feedlot south of town near Bartlett, volunteers were reportedly helping feed and tend to the huge herd of cattle, and semitruck drivers were pitching in to load and unload their cattle. About 20 Hispanic feedlot employees were detained by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. And, reportedly, another dozen didn’t show up for work after the raid, fearing that they would be rounded up, too.

Two decades ago, local residents filled jobs at the feedlot, according to former Herd Co. workers, but that’s not the case now. The decline of population in rural areas, the retirement of baby boomers, and the lure of less strenuous jobs with weekends and holidays off in urban areas have all combined to narrow the pool of local workers, leaving immigrants — who are willing to move to rural areas — to fill the void.

“In the old days, there were farm boys everywhere — the neighbor over the hill had three farm boys and only one could stay on the farm. But the farm boys are gone now,” said Tom Feller, a cattle feeder in the northeast Nebraska farm town of Wisner. “We could use two or three more people. But they aren’t to be found.”

The percentage of Hispanics in the state’s workforce has grown steadily in recent years. In 2016, the most recent year statistics are available, 9.3 percent of Nebraska’s workforce was Hispanic, more than double the percentage in 2000, according to statistics compiled by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

In a lot of ways, O’Neill was an unlikely place for an immigration raid.

It lacks the large meatpacking plants in towns like Lexington, Grand Island and Schuyler that have been a magnet for immigrants and have turned business districts into hubs of Hispanic businesses where Spanish is spoken regularly.

The percentage of Hispanics in Holt County, 5 percent in 2017, is about half the state average. But in recent years, two Hispanic grocery stores have opened in O’Neill, the county seat, and La Herradura, the restaurant owned by the alleged ringleader of the jobs-for-fees scheme, became a popular dining spot.

Gerardo Pena, a legal immigrant who has helped harvest and pack potatoes at Elkhorn River Farms for the past 12 years, said that he is often asked to recruit friends from Texas, where he has a winter home, to fill jobs at the farm. The jobs pay $10 an hour and require lifting 50-pound sacks of potatoes all day, which isn’t attractive to local people, he said.

“They are jobs that nobody from here wants to do,” Pena said. “Now, they don’t have nobody there to work.”

But not everyone around O’Neill agrees.

One Amelia-area rancher, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said he pays his hired hands $15 or more an hour. If Herd Co. and the potato farm paid similar wages, the rancher said, their labor issues would be solved.

“We’re playing by the rules,” said the rancher, rather than opting for lower-paid, immigrant labor.

At the Holt County Fair, people gathered near the food stand and show barn expressed more mixed views. Farms and local businesses need the workers. Immigrants are hard working and dependable. But can’t they come here legally?

When a reporter visited the Herd Co. facility on Thursday, he was told that the company’s attorney would contact him. The lawyer didn’t call, despite follow-up attempts to get comment.

An official at the tomato greenhouse acknowledged that finding workers was a big issue for the operation, which employs about 60 workers.

O’Neill is small enough that almost everyone in town knew someone impacted by the raid. Some of the families had lived here more than a decade. The raid meant three fewer teams at the fair’s “ranch rodeo” on Wednesday night. Local high school coaches were wondering if they’d have enough kids to fill rosters. A popular Mexican restaurant closed, and there were worries about whether the tomato greenhouse could remain open, and whether enough workers could be found for the upcoming potato harvest and to feed hogs at the confinement operators impacted.

O’Neill Superintendent Amy Shane said the slow and steady influx of Hispanic families to O’Neill has helped her school’s enrollment continue to grow. Hispanics, she said, constitute about 16 percent of the school’s enrollment.

But the raid, she said, could mean that as many as 40 to 60 students may now leave.

“Hopefully it won’t be that many,” Shane said.

In the wake of the raid, a group called O’Neill Cares Coalition formed to take in children whose parents were detained, and to find food and shelter for them and others. Corkle, who is a teacher and wrestling coach in town, was one of the organizers.

Immigration is a “tough issue” in a rural, conservative area like O’Neill, he said, but people are responding. Nearly 100 people gathered within 90 minutes to attend a rally Wednesday afternoon in support of the families impacted by the raid. Eight years ago, Corkle said, only a handful showed up to see off a local Hispanic wrestler who walked 196 miles to Lincoln to demonstrate his support for the DREAM Act, which allowed immigrant children brought to the U.S. a pathway to citizenship.

At a press conference Friday, Corkle and others with the O’Neill Cares group expressed frustration that Congress hasn’t taken action to allow hardworking immigrants to continue to work.

“At 2 percent unemployment, we can’t sustain our community under current federal law,” he said.

The raid prompted members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation last week to call for reform and compromise on immigration.

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