What happened at Christensen Farms?
Unpleasant news often garners sensational headlines. Local pork producer, Christensen Farms (CF), was reminded of that when their Sleepy Eye headquarters was the site of a visit by agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) on Wednesday morning, Aug. 8. The headline for an ICE news release, dated that day, was, “ICE executes federal search warrants in Nebraska, Minnesota and Nevada” with a subhead, “133 arrested on immigration violations while executing the criminal warrants.”
The action detailed in the news release was that special agents from ICE HSI executed a series of criminal arrest warrants Aug. 8, “for 17 individuals connected to an alleged criminal conspiracy to exploit illegal alien laborers for profit, fraud, wire fraud and money laundering in Nebraska and Minnesota.” The exploitation was described as: “Specifically, these illegal aliens were allegedly required to cash their paychecks at an illegal remittance business for a fee, have tax money deducted from their pay even though this money was never paid to the government, and were coerced to remain quiet about this criminal activity.”
The 17 individuals were indicted in U.S. District Court in Nebraska and were connected to companies, “JP and Sons, LLC” and “J Green Valley, LLC,” which allegedly provided unlawful employment to aliens and entered into contracts with companies to supply workers or perform services.
The news release continued: “In addition to these arrest warrants, authorities also served search warrants for worksite hiring violations at agricultural firms in Nebraska and Minnesota, and federal document search warrants at locations throughout Nebraska, in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota; Appleton, Minnesota; and Las Vegas, Nevada.”
Three of those locations are connected to Christensen Farms—a farm near O’Neill, Nebr. and trailer wash facilities in Sleepy Eye and Appleton. Christensen Farms has confirmed that the workers at the trailer wash facilities were contracted for through JP and Sons and J Green Valley. They refer to this arrangement as a third party vendor and say they were surprised to learn the vendors were not in compliance with federal immigration and employment policies.
What happened at Christensen Farms?
On Friday, Aug. 10, Glenn Stolt, Christensen Farms Chief Executive Officer, met with this reporter to provide more information on what had occurred. He said 50 federal agents were at the Sleepy Eye site on Wednesday and interviewed a number of employees in the office and feed mill on their immigration status, as well as at the trailer wash facility there and in Appleton, and also looked at various company documents.
Stolt said CF is cooperating with Homeland Security throughout the process. Because it is an ongoing investigation, he hadn’t planned to talk much about it. “But I saw how this was affecting our employees,” he said, “and felt it was important to say more about the situation.”
Stolt talked about how CF fills all the positions required to operate their business.
Stolt said CF has roughly 1,000 employees and about one-quarter are of diverse backgrounds. Of those, 11 percent are International Professionals under the TN Visa-NAFTA program. This work visa is described on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website: “The TN nonimmigrant classification permits qualified Canadian and Mexican citizens to seek temporary entry into the United States to engage in business activities at a professional level.” Stolt said these workers are animal science professionals who seek better positions in our country.
Stolt said in addition to CF’s 1,000 employees, the company also has contractual arrangements with perhaps 1,000 more people. For instance, they have contract growers on family farms and they contract with trucking firms for truck drivers, they’ve contracted for IT projects. The contract to provide workers at the trailer washes was another of these relationships.
“Our contracts specify that our vendors must abide with all laws,” said Stolt. “We are in the process of ending our business relationship with the vendors that supplied workers for the trailer wash facilities.”
Asked for clarification on why the trailer wash locations were staffed by third party vendors, Christensen Farms Communications Manager Amber Portner said, “Christensen Farms utilizes various channels to source talent/labor based on the need of the business and the role needing to be filled. We may utilize third party vendors to: 1) perform services that are traditionally completed on a per job basis rather than an hourly basis and for which our needs fluctuate over time; 2) have the need for a specific skillset for a particular project that will be temporary in nature and for which we do not have the skillset among our full-time employees within the company.”
Stolt pointed out the trailer washing process is important for bio-security and CF employees stepped in to continue the work. Portner said, “We’ve temporarily shuffled some of our employees from other areas within the company to fill in at the locations that have been affected by the recent Homeland Security visit. We are still evaluating long-term solutions to this issue.”
The Christensen Farms numbers
Between the two Minnesota CF trailer wash locations—Sleepy Eye and Appleton—12 individuals employed by the third party vendor were detained by ICE/Homeland Security, or have not come back to work at CF.
At the CF farm in O'Neill, Nebr., the 40 CF employees were required to shower-out and show their papers. Of those, four had discrepancies in their documentation and were taken to Grand Island, Nebr. to verify their documentation. These four individuals with discrepancies checked out and are back at work. Many of the employees at the O’Neill farm are working under TN visas.