Recalling the O’Neill raid, one year later

Gladys Godinez contributed to this blog.

On Aug. 8, 2018, a raid occurred at various locations in north central Nebraska. Dozens of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents executed warrants of arrest for 17 people who were allegedly “exploiting alien laborers for profit, fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering.” These do not include house arrests, as well as more than 100 workers detained during the investigation. The detained individuals were taken to Grand Island Department of Homeland Security - ICE office to be processed.

Community organizing associate for the Center for Rural Affairs, Gladys Godinez, spends her days working toward inclusion in rural communities. She carefully prepares for and hosts events to bring communities together.

But, on Aug. 8, 2018, she found herself in the middle of a community torn apart.

Upon hearing of the raid, Gladys sprung into action. She sought volunteers to help with the response and was able to connect with two college students who wanted to assist during the first 72 hours.

She then got on the road. In the time it took her to travel to O’Neill, Nebraska, Gladys caught up with the Immigrant Legal Center out of Omaha, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska based in Lincoln, and the Grand Island Latino Network—all of which were also mobilizing.

Once on site, Gladys joined representatives from the other organizations at O’Neill Elementary School to meet with school staff. She recalls friends of family members dropping off children at the school—a safe place—where teachers and staff welcomed the children who were separated from their parents.

“It was heartbreaking seeing children as young as 6 months old crying for their parents,” said Gladys. “As a community organizer, I was not prepared for the emotional toll this would take on me. If it hurt my heart this much, I could only imagine the pain the families were feeling.”

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The day of Aug. 8 is a date that will always remain in my unpleasant memories. It was a day of much pain, of anguish, of despair.  Not knowing what would happen to me, with my children. This raid affects us. Since this raid, we cannot work, and now our situation is even more difficult. I have two children, and in this country I can give them a better life and an opportunity to live better, away from crime. I like the people very much; here they are all very good. It is very nice to go out, and people who don’t know you greet and smile at you. The weather is very beautiful, especially the snow. I love living here. I hope to realize my dream and be able to stay in this country; make a life here with my family. I would like to be able to work and educate my children in the best way.

* * *

After brief introductions with the staff, and going over a quick timeline of what happened, the group started organizing the intake process. They also discussed locations at which they could help serve the impacted families.

“We soon learned that legal services were not the only assistance we would help organize,” said Gladys. “We found out of families staying at a church nearby were taking shelter there because they were afraid that if they went home, ICE would return and pick them up.”

At the church, organizers met with various family members who needed to fill out the proper paperwork to have an attorney to visit them at the holding locations.

“While at the church, we found out that people were being released,” said Gladys. “We couldn’t believe it! People were being released! We went to the locations people said they were being dropped off, but didn’t see anyone.”

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My name is Lupe and I am from El Salvador. LupeI am 47 years old and blessed with two children. I left my country for lack of work and gang crime. I have had 11 and a half years to grow in this country. I have worked nine years and eight months here at O'Neill. It was hard at the beginning; they paid $8 an hour, then I spent six years earning $9 an hour, but for me it was a blessing; my job was done with great pleasure and love, because I still helped my family in El Salvador. But, on Aug. 8, 2018, I was surprised by immigration. I was arrested, but I was released the following day for not having any criminal history. I find myself without work, desperate, worried that I do not know what will happen to me in this process. But, I hope in God that everything goes well, and I can work and move forward with my family, with my son Jose who needs me.

My confidence is in the Lord Jesus Christ because it helped me to this day. God bless all who have given us their generous help.

* * *

The following morning, the organizers went back to the O’Neill Methodist Church, where they were offered the church’s fellowship hall to turn into their response station. There, they were able to collect and organize donations and have a safe place where people could fill out legal intake forms to help their family members. The organizers also reached out to legal coordinators at Immigrant Legal Center, who helped in coordinating legal consultations.

“Initially, we did not see many people because they did not trust any other locations other than their church,” said Gladys. “Luckily, the pastor allowed us to come in to help with legal intakes and possible consults.”

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My name is Rosa, and I have two daughters, and the day of the raid in O'Neill, we were affected. We were arrested with my husband because my work permit expired, and to date it has been difficult for me to get ahead. My husband is still in process, had court in January, and I'm still waiting for renewing my work permit to start working. We are very grateful to all those who have given us support, and by the show of affection and concern. We can only say, thank you God. We know that this country is not ours, but we all have a reason to seek refuge here. I also have a pending asylum request in response to the judge. I think that all of us who were affected have changed our lives because although we yearn to work, we cannot achieve anything. It is very difficult and worrying to be without work.

* * *

“Legal consultations do not necessarily mean long-term representation,” said Gladys. “This is a lesson we learned way too late. Our statewide resources do not have the capacity to represent 100 plus individuals detained in a raid. We were grateful for the work that statewide responders gave us, but a raid this size really tests the capacity of what we are able to do.”

As the organizers continued with legal intakes, they took into account all other potential needs that might arise—necessities such as food, basic hygiene products, formula for babies, and financial assistance.

The North Central District Health Department was able to help the organizers obtain cots from the American Red Cross for individuals sleeping at the church, as well as help coordinate a resource fair. Organizations around the state provided resources for affected individuals. They were also instrumental in facilitating the collaboration with Midtown Health Center in Norfolk, Nebraska, so individuals could receive medical, dental, and vision appointments.

“A lot of people who were affected by the raid had not seen a doctor, dentist, or received an eye check for a long time because they were not able to afford it,” Gladys said. 

Other organizations offered assistance with basic needs—the O’Neill Cares Coalition, which is made up by local volunteers comprised of family, friends, teachers, or neighbors, and the O’Neill Ministerial Association.

“These groups were beautiful to see assisting the affected families,” said Gladys. “They allowed us to fundraise and assist financially through their work. Within a few days, we were able to help individuals affected by the raid in rent, electricity, gas, and all basic financial needs.”

Though more than $150,000 has been raised, the needs of those affected continue to be an issue. 

“There were people who were released but are not able to work, drive, or apply for financial assistance due to their current undocumented status,” said Gladys. “With the current state of the immigration process, this state of limbo can continue for days, weeks, months, and years.”

* * *


My name is Mario. In the current situation, we find many of my colleagues and myself are in a critical situation. We are currently in a standstill due to the immigration system. Yes, we were able to apply for a work permit, but we are unable to work or drive, and that is why we have been dependent on your help. We are so grateful for your work here in O’Neill and the assistance. We only hope to expedite these procedures so we do not become dependent on your generosity. Even with this assistance, we find ourselves struggling to make it through the week. We thank you for all of your donations, but understand that our lives are at a standstill and we cannot do anything on our behalf. We thank you for being here for us. 


* * *

The raid happened mere days before most schools were starting up for the fall, which left many families, who now had no income, in need of school supplies for their children.

The organizers were able to put together backpacks for the children, and with the assistance of the school, were able to help children who needed laptop fees paid for.

“In addition to bringing staff to volunteer, Lutheran Family Services was able to help us close the gap in school supplies,” said Gladys. “The O’Neill United Methodist Church also had a clothes closet they opened to the families affected, so we were able to receive clothing donations that assisted during the start of school to this day.”

* * *


HumbertoWe are five total, my wife and my children. The big one is 16 years old, the middle one is 11 years old, and the youngest is 7 years old. They detained us, and the truth is, that it affected us a lot because right now we cannot work to support my family, and I am waiting to work soon.

I was looking for a better life for my family and I because I love my family, and I hope to continue working so that my children are good people and don’t have to work in the hard conditions that I work in; whether they become lawyers, doctors, or teachers.

I have been here for 13 years, and I am comfortable. I have not had problems in this state and have been working for my family. We hope God does helps us move forward. I hope for the best. Keep working and move forward because my family is the only thing I have, and it is very important for me. Thank you very much for your help.

* * *

The Center for Rural Affairs has partnered with other organizations to offer aid, including Immigrant Legal Center, Grand Island Multicultural Coalition, Nebraska Appleseed, Heartland Workers Center, and Centro Hispano, among others.

“All of these organizations communicated and tried to find the best way to help those affected by the raid,” said Gladys. “We did our best to meet the needs of more than 100 individuals by collaborating with more than 50 local, statewide, and national organizations.”

After a few weeks of continuous work, the organizers sat down with community members to discover what other needs they may have.

“Something that we could not ignore was the need for mental health assistance,” said Gladys. “After hearing feedback from the therapists, we knew we were working with individuals who were going through post traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other mental health diagnoses.”

* * *





I have been very sad and emotional. Unable to work. Stressed by being at home, because I cannot work. I cannot help my family, more than anything, my children.

[I came to the United States] because of the need to have a better future for my children. It's a  very nice place and very quiet. [I hope to] be able to get a job again, to be legal here in this country.



* * *

There is still a need for long-term assistance for those affected. And, though there are partner organizations that have stepped up to offer aid, this is a nationwide crisis, causing lasting effects to those directly and indirectly involved. 

“The national immigration dilemma still lingers,” said Gladys. “Those who may not be directly impacted from it see it as a political debate to prepare for at family dinners, to volunteering and donating to organizations that help individuals who are currently affected, and to those who have family who are currently affected by the immigration system.”

* * *



I lost my job, and since I am the oldest son of the family, I cannot continue supporting my family. In my country, there is a great need, and without opportunities to support my family. The people [in Nebraska] are very kind, respectful, and above all [I can live in] safety.

In the future, I will keep being better every day. God is very nice, and he never leaves me. He is the one who gives me the strength every day to move forward. To move my family forward. I do not have legal status, but I wish to get my family ahead. Maybe someday when I have legal status, I can bring my parents here. That would make me very happy.


* * *

“We try not to be traumatized by the ongoing conversations, imagery, and inhumane treatment that some have endured,” said Gladys. “As a responder to this raid, I can see firsthand how a raid affects individuals, families, and communities. As community organizers, we try to tame those threats by ensuring individuals that they have rights, and do our best in sharing these rights throughout our state.”

Donations are still being accepted for families in O’Neill. To donate, please send checks or money orders to O’Neill First United Methodist Church, attention to Immigrant Ministry Services 404 W. Cedar St., O’Neill NE 68763.

Resources are limited in rural communities; therefore, volunteers and local community members are vital to an emergency response. As we helped undocumented immigrants and their families, we soon understood that important resources such as food, lodging, and financial and legal services were more than three hours away. We strive to help all rural communities in the U.S. by sharing this tip sheet and it is our hope it alleviates some work if a rural community is affected by a raid in the future.

*The names have been changed to protect the privacy of these individuals. Photos by Rebekah Gardner.