Six women in hand and leg restraints are escorted into the Federal Building in Lincoln on Aug. 9 as people who were swept up in a widespread immigration sting a day earlier prepared to appear before a judge.

A federal prosecutor laid out for a judge this week a plot where agricultural corporations and Juan Pablo Delgado -- the man at the defense table -- profited from a plot to supply them with a cheap, illegal labor force, leaving hundreds of migrant workers caught in the middle.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lesley Woods said, in some cases, employees who couldn't legally work in the country were made to work in the dark as punishment for not working fast enough, were threatened with deportation and were forced to do cramped, painful work while Delgado made millions.

Woods said he conspired with corporate supervisors at several medium- to large-sized ag corporations to make it appear as though the workers were solely employed by him.

"This allowed the agricultural corporations to try and avoid criminal responsibility for immigration violations and to benefit from a cheaper labor pool that they could draw on tax-free," Woods said at Delgado's plea hearing on Tuesday in Lincoln.

In total, she said, he provided hundreds of workers through JP and Sons LLC and J Green Valley LLC between 2015 and last July, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers came with arrest warrants to the O'Neill area and two communities in Minnesota.

Woods didn't name the businesses Tuesday but previously said Delgado had supplied Elkhorn River Farms, O'Neill Ventures, GJW LLC in Ainsworth and others with workers without verifying their identities or completing the required paperwork, and used different names and Social Security numbers to hide that they were in the country illegally.

In all, Homeland Security investigations encountered 133 people here illegally.

In court, Woods said Delgado used his staffing companies to recruit workers and provide them to ag corporations for a fee.

Eventually, he expanded his recruitment to Facebook and began placing workers in Minnesota, at a business Woods referred to only as "Agricultural Corporation No. 1."

There, she said, they worked in physically exhausting and painful jobs for little to no pay, sometimes going for weeks without any pay at all.

Woods said some supervisors there forced employees to work in the dark to punish them for not working fast enough and induce them to get more work done.

"Supervisors at this company required workers to crawl into small spaces to clean hog feces by hand, and the long hours in which they could not sit or stand up caused many to seek medical treatment," she said.

In Nebraska and Minnesota, she said, Delgado lied to workers, telling them state income tax, Social Security and Medicare withholdings were being taken out of their checks and paid in. Instead, he kept much of it for his own personal benefit, she said.

Woods said some of the lowest wages were paid to workers at "Agricultural Corporation No. 3" in Nebraska.

"There a supervisor would threaten to deport workers or report them to authorities if they were not working hard enough. They were not given required breaks, (not) allowed to speak at work and routinely harassed to get them to work faster," she said.

Last July when agents served the search warrant there, about 50 of the 80 workers had been contracted through Delgado.

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In intercepted phone calls, Delgado and his stepson, Antonio De Jesus Castro, told prospective workers they didn't need a Social Security number to work at these companies, Woods said.

He and co-conspirators "generated millions in proceeds and failed to verify as required by federal law the identity and lawful status of those in the defendant's and these companies' employment," she said.

In the end, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cheryl Zwart asked Delgado a series of questions.

The first: "Is everything that Ms. Woods said the truth?"

"Yes," Delgado answered through an interpreter.

He pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens and will face up to 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine at his sentencing in May.

After he serves his time, he'll be deported to Mexico.

As part of his plea deal, Delgado also agreed to forfeit more than $178,000 seized from bank accounts and four homes in Las Vegas.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.


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