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.
Just weeks later, in July, as the dairy was getting back on track, ICE returned for a second raid. VerHaar believes that the drowning of one of his employees at a nearby lake may have brought his dairy back onto ICE’s radar. Much of his night crew was present when the man drowned and the men were questioned by authorities.
This time, dozens of law enforcement cars drove on to the VerHaar dairy. Agents removed computers and paper files. Employees were held at gunpoint and then taken from the dairy. Again, the VerHaars relied on their teenaged children, friends and even business associates to help on the dairy.
The first year, he remembers, "was a disaster," as the dairy sought to find capable, responsible employees to help operate the dairy.
In October 2010, ICE returned for a third time. Nick VerHaar, then in eighth grade, recalls rushing home from school. "This time, my parents were picked up," he recalled in a video shown at the Expo session. "Now I had to mentally deal with my parents being taken away from our farm. It brought a lot more personal stress.
In the same video, Anja said it was the first time she had ridden in a police car. The couple was taken to Bay City and placed in separate cells. After five hours, their attorney appeared. The attorney advised them that their status as non-U.S. citizens would not help them in a trial. He eventually negotiated a plea deal to reduce the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor, and lower the fine from $3.5 million.
"We decided to go that route," VerHaar says. "We wanted to keep the dairy where we had worked so hard for 14 years."
Today, the VerHaars’ dairy is subject to an ICE audit at any time. The family paid $1 million of the $2.7 million fine in late 2011 and will pay the rest over the next four years. In addition, they have legal bills of close to $300,000. "We’re paying them just like we would any other bill: by milking cows," VerHaar says.
His two oldest sons, Marco and Johnny, are building their own dairies. Shaken by the ICE raids, they’ll employ robotic milkers and feeders to replace much human labor. "It shouldn’t be left up to employers to determine whether people are here legally or illegally," says Johnny.
The VerHaars now use E-Verify, the federal electronic employee verification program.
VerHaar wouldn’t comment on whether the ordeal has influenced his thoughts of becoming a U.S. citizen. "I still love this country," he says.
Anja says she has gone public with their story only to make sure that producers understand what can happen if ICE targets their dairies. "Know what you’re doing," she says, "because they can take everything."