O'Neill dealing with aftermath of immigration raids

Aug. 9, 2018, 1:11 a.m. ·

Participants in a rally protesting immigration raids in O'Neill (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Residents of O’Neill, Nebraska are grappling with the aftereffects of immigration raids Wednesday that targeted local businesses and individuals.

The raids started shortly before 9 a.m., with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents surrounding tomato growing and potato processing plants, and also targeting a Mexican restaurant, a grocery store and a ranch near this northeast Nebraska town of about 3,600 people. ICE said it was particularly targeting 17 individuals in multiple states who the agency said “colluded to create an illegal alien workforce in their respective businesses.” ICE said it executed search warrants in Nebraska, Minnesota and Nevada, and arrested 133 people on immigration violations.

O’Neill Public Schools Superintendent Amy Shane opened the elementary school to children whose parents were arrested. By 3 p.m., St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was holding a special rosary for the families that were affected. Father Joseph Sund said it was important for families to be respected, adding Joseph, Mary and Jesus were refugees in Egypt.

By 4:30 p.m., a crowd of about 50 people had gathered on the lawn of the Holt County Courthouse in O’Neill. Among them was an O’Neill high school student whom we are not naming. He said he was born in this country and has lived in O’Neill since age two. But his parents are undocumented.

Fr. Bernard Starman speaks at rally on Holt County courthouse lawn in O’Neill, Nebraska after an immigration raid in the town Wednesday. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

“I had a lot of friends family get taken – get separated from their families today. It’s just kind of heartbreaking. I thought I was going to lose my parents today. Too bad they didn’t go to work today, so, good news for me,” he said.

Father Bernard Starman of St. Patrick’s said America is a nation of immigrants.

“The system is broken. This isn’t so much a protest today as it is standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, our family members, our community members, my parishioners. Lives have been irreparably harmed today and we hope it’s the last time anything like this has to happen in any of our communities,” Fr. Starman said.

Delray Kumm, owner of a local garden nursery, said the raid would hurt business.

“In Holt County we only have 10 to 12-thousand people. We have a very limited customer base for our businesses. We have to work very hard to offer good customer service to all of our customers, ‘cause we can’t afford to lose customers. And today, we’re losing a lot of customers,” Kumm said.

Kendra Vanderbeek, a teacher at O’Neill High School, said she was taking it personally.

“I view all of my students as my kids. They’re part of my family, and right now I feel my family being ripped apart,” she said.

Another teacher, Katrina Gotschall, urged the crowd to look at the larger picture.

A Homeland Security Investigations agent leads away one of those arrested during immigration raids in O'Neill, Nebraska Wednesday. (Photo by Keith Gardner, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

“We need to understand the conflict of law vs. ethics and morality. And we all need to examine what it means to be human. And we need to have these conversations in our communities. Because we’re supposed to be ‘Nebraska Nice.’ But I don’t feel like this is ‘Nebraska Nice,’” Gotschall said.

There was one contrary voice at the rally. A man who did not identify himself asked a question about the treatment of illegal immigrants.

“Aren’t the business owners kind of making money off them? Isn’t that the point?” he said.

In a news release, ICE said authorities suspect illegal aliens were exploited through force, coercion, or threat of arrest or deportation.

The Facebook page of O’Neill radio station KBRX had many comments from people supporting the raid. One comment, under the name of Chad James, read “Read the indictment. Serious criminal activity on multiple fronts, by multiple parties, both employee and employer alike.”

As the protest rally broke up, organizers urged people to contact their representatives, and participants sang “This land is your land.”