– A day after nearly 50 federal agents raided this quiet farming town’s big hog plant, residents were still taking in the surprise that a local family-run business could be linked to a major immigration bust.

The arrests Wednesday of more than 130 illegal workers in two states — plus 17 people whom authorities said “colluded to create an illegal immigrant workforce” — largely focused on agribusinesses in Nebraska. But by Thursday morning, this southwestern Minnesota community of 3,500 residents was buzzing about the dozen workers arrested here at Christensen Farms, the giant hog operation on the edge of town, and at the company’s plant in Appleton, Minn.

Christensen Farm’s CEO Glenn Stolt on Thursday blamed the hiring of the undocumented workers on a third-party vendor, identified in a federal indictment unsealed this week.

To be clear, he said, Christensen Farms verifies the citizenship of the 1,000 workers it directly employs to feed and care for pigs in its facilities.

The company, one of the largest pork producers in the country with operations in several Midwest states, relies on third-party vendors to follow the law, he said.

Stolt said Christensen Farms, which sometimes struggles to find workers to fill jobs, will end its contract with the vendor and assess how it can prevent the same situation from happening again. He said it was “disappointing” that the vendor hired workers who were in the country illegally and then treated them poorly.

Despite the challenge of finding workers to fill some jobs, Stolt said Christensen Farms has a track record of observing immigration and employment laws.

The ICE arrests are a taint on the company — painting an image that doesn’t reflect what the family-owned business is about, he said.

Long planned raid

Wednesday’s raid was led by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and targeted agricultural firms in Minnesota and Nebraska accused of exploiting undocumented workers for profit.

ICE said it spent more than a year gathering evidence of a conspiracy to exploit illegal laborers at the agricultural firms.

Workers were threatened with arrest or deportation to keep quiet about the alleged exploitation, ICE said, which included being ordered to cash paychecks at an illegal remittance business for a fee and having tax money deducted from their paychecks despite that money never going to the government.

According to the federal indictment, co-conspirators deposited more than $5.6 million in illegal proceeds from the plot.

A firm accused of being set up to supply businesses with illegal workers was at the center of the federal indictment unsealed Wednesday. Three of the 17 people charged are accused of setting up JP and Sons LLC and J Green Valley LLC, which prosecutors said advertised job openings on Facebook.

The three defendants, based in Nebraska, were accused of not verifying workers’ identities and failing to complete paperwork required by law before placing the workers in jobs at the companies.

The co-defendants also are accused of using different names and Social Security numbers for the workers “in order to conceal the aliens’ identities and immigration status,” according to the indictment.

ICE said it is still investigating evidence that companies knowingly hired people who were in the country illegally at their businesses and that many of the workers were using fraudulent identification belonging to U.S. citizens.

Prosecutors in Nebraska are considering filing criminal charges against the companies, according to an ICE spokesperson.

CEO got a text

Sitting in the company’s headquarters in Sleepy Eye on Thursday, Stolt said he was out of town when he received a text Wednesday morning from an employee informing him that ICE agents were searching for undocumented workers and confiscating documents.

Dozens of agents in black SUVs pulled onto the company property, blocking entrances to keep people from leaving or entering, he said. For several hours, agents interviewed every employee and checked some IDs.

While the company was taking stock Thursday of what had transpired, immigration attorneys in Minnesota were focusing on the workers caught up in the raid.

Those arrested were placed in custody and will be held until their cases are processed. Some will get notices to appear before an immigration judge and be released, while others will stay in ICE facilities until court proceedings.

John Cselovszki, superintendent of Sleepy Eye Public Schools, said he was unaware of any previous ICE activity in the town during his 10 years working for the school district. Though classes are not in session this week, Cselovszki said that school officials had not identified any families affected by the immigration arrests.

Roughly 15 percent of the town’s residents are Hispanic, and Cselovszki said the district employed a bilingual liaison who is prepared to serve students or families who come forward.

Mayor Wayne Pelzel, said he also knew no details of the arrests, and had never heard anything negative about Christensen Farms.

“Christensen Farms has been a solid employer in our area for many years, so I was surprised to hear yesterday’s news,” said local state Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska.

Meanwhile, in Appleton City Clerk/Treasurer Roman Fidler also said that city officials there had “absolutely no knowledge” of any local arrests by ICE agents.

Working with hogs

Located 110 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, Sleepy Eye sits in the heart of Brown County, which overwhelmingly supported President Donald Trump, who campaigned in 2016 on a promise to crack down on illegal immigration.

But some local residents said Thursday that legal immigrants are the backbone of businesses like Christensen Farms, one of the region’s largest employers.

“How many people want to work with hogs?” said Francis Rieger, of nearby New Ulm, as he lunched Thursday with his granddaughter.

Lexy Stimpert, however, was upset to learn one of the town’s largest employers hired immigrants living in the country illegally.

“It’s our jobs, our money,” she said while working the cash register at the ExpressWay gas station convenience store. “I know that kind of sounds racist, but I’m not. … We work hard for our stuff.”

Stimpert said she often sees job postings from Christensen Farms online and even applied for one six months ago. She said she never got a call back.


mlsmith@startribune.com 612-673-4788 smontemayor@startribune.com 612-673-1755