ICE agents have raided the Aquila Farms dairy three times. On the third raid, owners John and Anja VerHaar were arrested and jailed.
Sober advice from a dairyman found guilty of employing illegal workers.
It wasn’t the first or even the second time Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided his Michigan dairy that shook John VerHaar to his core.
It was the third raid, on Oct. 6, 2010, when federal officers handcuffed VerHaar and his wife, Anja, and drove them to jail as a helicopter circled overhead and armed agents stood guard on their Aquila Farms dairy.
Until then, the VerHaars' troubles with ICE over employing illegal workers mostly produced just the physical challenge of getting 2,000 cows milked after his workforce was forcibly removed. But those troubles turned emotional when the arrest took the VerHaars from their four teenaged children and their dairy with no idea when they would return. Neither the VerHaars nor their children are U.S. citizens, although they have legal status.
VerHaar recounted his ICE experience during a dairy seminar Wednesday at World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif. He was cautious in describing his ordeal and refrained from answering some questions.
ICE news releases on the VerHaars: June 28, 2011 and Nov. 8, 2011
The VerHaars were charged with employing undocumented workers. ICE says that from about 2000 through 2007, the dairy employed 78 different illegal aliens, which constituted almost 75% of its workforce over that time period. Aquila Farms failed "to conduct the necessary inquiries to determine the employment eligibility of its work force, as required by federal immigration laws," ICE says.
By June 2011, the VerHaars and their Aquila Farms had reached an agreement with the government, pleading guilty to hiring illegal aliens. They were fined $2.7 million and sentenced to three years of probation.
The VerHaars and their four children emigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands in the mid-1990s. They purchased a small dairy near Bad Axe, Mich., in 1996 and eventually built it into a 2,500-cow operation. By the time of the first raid in May 2007, the dairy was "working like clockwork," VerHaar says. Along with his family, the workforce consisted of 13 Hispanic employees.
"All that changed in a matter of minutes," VerHaar recalls.
On that May morning, ICE agents took away the employees. VerHaar says he never saw a search warrant. With no one left to feed and milk their cows, the VerHaars called on family and friends for help. "That got us through the first couple of days," VerHaar says.
Michigan dairy owner John VerHaar advises other dairy producers to be very careful when hiring employees "because tomorrow can be a disaster." VerHaar was in California for the World Ag Expo.
- March 2012