A plainclothes federal officer walked into an Ohio gardening store early Tuesday and allegedly lured workers to gather themselves by offering free donuts. Splinter has obtained a video recording of a 17-year-old worker describing the incident. She said a man carrying three boxes of donuts entered the store and claimed he was there to conduct a health inspection.
Once a critical mass of employees had gathered, immigration officials moved in.
In all, around 200 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 114 people at two separate Corso’s Flower & Garden Center locations, a family-owned company that operates a gardening store and offers landscaping services. Corso’s also has several acres of greenhouses and supplies perennials to stores in Ohio, Michigan, Western Pennsylvania, Indiana, northern Kentucky, and New York. The company employs 150 workers during peak times, according to their website.
A local immigrant rights leaders told Splinter ICE has released at least seven individuals who were arrested. The individuals released were teenagers who are U.S. citizens; for some this was their first job. Others also had a parent or other family members who worked at Corso’s. On Tuesday evening, WNWO reported at least one worker arrested on Tuesday has already been deported.
On Tuesday morning, word spread quickly among the workers that there was a nice man offering free donuts.
“That’s when ICE barged in with K9s and guns,” one of the workers is heard saying in the video obtained by Splinter. Splinter is not naming the teen because she is a minor.
The video was first published privately on Facebook and sent to Splinter by the owner. (The person who recorded the video asked to not be named due to concerns about being targeted by anti-immigrant locals in Ohio.)
The 17-year-old worker was one of the employees allowed to walk free because she is a U.S. citizen. She said workers were asked to form two single file lines, one for U.S. citizens and another one for non-citizens.
The U.S. citizens were then told they could grab a donut. The non-citizens were asked for proof of being in the country legally.
Many of those arrested were women who planted flowers and plants, according to local community leaders. Many of the workers were distraught and crying. One woman fainted. Armed Border Patrol agents took her to the hospital, and stood guard outside her door.
ICE did not respond to Splinter’s request for a gender breakdown of the 114 people arrested, or for comment on any aspect of the story. But another worker corroborated the donut story to a local news channel. A worker told WKYC that “undercover officers showed up in their break room, pretending to offer donuts, before chaos erupted,” the local news network reported.
News of the raid sent the town into a frenzy. “People on the bus were telling people to get out. Some people left cars behind. Families are still hiding. It’s like a ghost town,” said Veronica Isabel Dahlberg, director of Hola Ohio, a grassroots immigrant rights group based in North East Ohio.
A cell phone image obtained by Splinter, taken during the raid, shows an officer in military uniform carrying what appears to be a military weapon. An ICE officer told the Sandusky Register he was not aware of officers carrying submachine weapons (which was the description given in calls by people on the scene to the Register). He said the officers were carrying their issued weapons.
Ohio is home to close to 477,000 immigrants, according to estimates from the American Immigration Council. An estimated 95,000 undocumented immigrants live in the state.
ICE told the AP that the agency expected to file criminal charges against those arrested. The spokesperson said charges could include identity theft and tax evasion.
Dahlberg suspected most of the workers were using made-up names and made-up Social Security numbers. This signaled that the workers may have been paying federal and state taxes using unverified Social Security numbers—and not stealing identities, as ICE claimed.
“I wish they didn’t have to do this, but this is how the agricultural industry has survived in the United States for almost a hundred years,” Dahlberg said.
“This has us sad,” Pastor Francisco Carillo told Splinter by phone hours after the raid. “The only thing I care about right now are the children.”
On Tuesday evening, Carillo said his church was housing 50 children of parents who were detained by ICE. Some of the children had nowhere to go because both their parents were taken by immigration officials. He said seven of the children had lost both sets of guardians, including an infant and toddlers who still required baby formula. (Carillo asked Splinter not name his church in this story because he was concerned ICE agents could target them and detain the children.)
“We’ve given them food. Right now we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to distribute the kids,” Carrillo said.
The arrests at Corso’s is the Trump administration’s largest workplace raid to date. However, it pales in comparison to raids and workplace enforcement operations under the George W. Bush administration. The largest single-workplace immigration raid in U.S. history rounded up nearly 600 workers in 2008 at a Howard Industries facility in Mississippi. The 2008 Agriprocessors meatpacking plant raid in Postville, IA, also resulted in 389 immigrants arrested.
President Donald Trump last year commuted the prison sentence of the Agriprocessors CEO who was accused of “harboring illegal immigrants for financial gain and aiding and abetting document fraud and aggravated identity theft.”
ICE told the AP that no charges have been brought against the owners of Corso’s but that an investigation is pending. We will update the story if ICE responds.
Correction, June 6, 1 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the Howard Industries and Agriprocessors raids were during George W. Bush’s administration.