Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided businesses in Montana and Nebraska on Wednesday, indicting 17 business owners and mangers for fraud and money laundering.
The agents in ICE's Homeland Security Investigations arm led the raids on businesses they allege knowingly hired and improperly treated immigrants without legal status, The Associated Press reported.
Authorities took 14 of the people indicted into custody and are still searching for three others, according to the AP.
Special agent in charge Tracy Cormier told the wire service that the raids were part of one of the largest operations in the 15 years since the Homeland Security Investigations branch was created.
“The whole investigation was initiated, basically, because we knew that these businesses were cheating these workers and cheating taxpayers and cheating their competition,” she said.
ICE raids generally target workers thought to be in the U.S. illegally, not business owners. The agency also told the AP that it arrested 133 workers believed to be in the country illegally.
Cormier told the AP that the businesses had used fake names and Social Security numbers to hire the workers, and then used “force, fraud, coercion, threat of arrest and/or deportation” to exploit the immigrants.
ICE officials also alleged that the businesses had withheld taxes from the workers’ pay, but did not turn those funds over to the government, according to the AP.
The workers were also allegedly forced to pay large fees in order to cash their paychecks, the site reported.