Attorneys for three O'Neill area residents on trial on allegations that they harbored people in the country illegally painted their clients as government scapegoats in opening statements Monday in Lincoln.
John Good, John Glidden and Mayra Jimenez aren't accused of leading the plot to supply agricultural businesses with a cheap, illegal labor force.
The leader, Juan Pablo Delgado, already has pleaded guilty, along with his wife, Magdalena Castro, and her son, Antonio De Jesus Castro.
But in U.S. District Court on Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lesley Woods called the northeast Nebraska town of O'Neill ground zero for the conspiracy, which "grew and grew uninterrupted," and included the three defendants.
Glidden and Jimenez both worked at ag businesses: Glidden as a manager at Long Pine Hog Confinement near Royal; and Jimenez in HR at Garden Fresh Vegetables, a tomato plant in O'Neill.
Their attorneys, Carlos Monzón and Candice Wooster, say both were just doing what they had been told to do by higher-ups.
If they needed more workers, they went to Delgado's staffing agency, JP and Sons, to get them. Delgado was responsible for the paperwork, they said.
Monzón told the jury Delgado and his wife relied on secrecy in their $500 million conspiracy.
The minute the couple told people they were hiring illegal aliens, their business was done, he said, contending that Glidden didn't conspire with Delgado or personally get anything out of it.
"Do not let this man become a scapegoat," Monzón said.
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Wooster called Jimenez, a naturalized citizen, a middleman messenger. By 2014, the tomato plant where she worked already had been using JP and Sons for staffing. She said managers told Jimenez when they needed employees and how many and asked her to work with Delgado to get them.
It wasn't Jimenez's job to collect documentation for those who worked under contract through Delgado, Wooster said.
The third person on trial, Good, a 75-year-old man from Atkinson, didn't know Jimenez or Glidden. His attorney, David Domina, introduced them in front of the jury.
He said Good is a businessman who owned La Herradura, the Mexican restaurant on Main Street that Delgado and Magdalena Castro ran. But he didn't take one dime or even a free meal from them, Domina said.
The government alleges Good also conspired to launder money in addition to harboring.
Domina said Good bought a $35,000 home that the couple paid him for on contract, which he called an "act of kindness" that the government now says makes him guilty of harboring illegal aliens.
"This is their harboring?" Domina said, pointing to a front-page story in the local paper heralding the restaurant's opening.
Woods, the prosecutor, asked the jury to consider if Delgado could have become what he was without Good's help.
And she said Glidden worked the contract laborers harder than the others knowing they couldn't complain for fear of being deported; and Jimenez provided false names, knowing Delgado wasn't paying benefits or bonuses meant for the workers.
Woods said the case involved wire taps, so jurors will hear what each said when they thought no one was listening. What is more reliable than that, she asked.
Trial is expected to go for at least a week.