Fence workers held in security sweep | Company has contract with North Island NAS
Union Tribune (2004-09-22) Leslie Berestein
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Fourteen employees of an Oceanside fencing contractor, along with 13 relatives and "collateral" undocumented immigrants, face deportation following raids yesterday morning on their residences by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
The 14 workers were employed by Golden State Fence Co.
The company was targeted along with more than 250 other contractors doing business on North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado.
For four months, ICE has been auditing these businesses' hiring records in what agency officials say is a push to close security loopholes on military bases, public places such as airports and other sites vulnerable to terrorism.
"We are looking at targets in the San Diego area that could potentially be exploited, potential targets for terror," said Michael Unzueta, acting special agent in charge for ICE investigations in San Diego. "Obviously, the military is a huge presence in San Diego. . . . North Island is potentially a target."
However, none of those apprehended throughout San Diego County yesterday is from what federal officials term special-interest countries, nations known to harbor terrorists or sponsor terrorist activities.
Most are from Mexico and some, according to Golden State, were longtime company employees.
Of the 14 workers, 13 are Mexican and one is Guatemalan.
Most of the 13 others apprehended in the workers' homes are thought to be Mexican. Four of the 27 people had criminal records, and these four are legal residents. One already had his green card rescinded; the others now stand to lose their green cards.
ICE officials say the focus of the investigation at North Island was anti-terrorism.
Gary Hansen, Golden State's vice president of administration, said the company did no wrong. The employees, who were issued paychecks and paid taxes, were given pre-employment physicals and health insurance, he said. Some have families with children born here.
"They presented to us what appeared to be legal documentation to work in the United States," Hansen said. "It's a shame."
ICE officials said the company cooperated with the investigation and provided employees' addresses. Golden State will not face civil or criminal penalties.
That undocumented employees are punished and their employers are not punished for hiring them is common practice, said Lilia Velasquez, a San Diego immigration attorney. Once an employee presents required identification, the employer is no longer liable.
"There is no requirement that they check with the immigration service to determine the authenticity, or with the Social Security Administration to verify whether it is a bona fide number," Velasquez said.
Many employers are genuinely duped, she said. But some are duped willingly.
"I know of cases where the employer looks the other way," she said. "They may have reason to suspect the documents are not bona fide, but they are not going to check. They don't have time to check. Hey, this guy is going to be working as a dishwasher."
The Department of Homeland Security maintains a program that allows companies to voluntarily verify documents, but only 120 businesses in San Diego use it.
Some experts question whether apprehending such workers enhances national security, especially when their employers are not sanctioned and could end up hiring more undocumented workers.
"It is terribly hypocritical," said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego. "It has absolutely nothing to do with increasing security."
ICE has apprehended 156 people in San Diego since last Oct. 1 as part of Operation Safe Cities, a post-9/11 initiative designed to protect sensitive businesses from security breaches.
None came from special-interest countries, according to ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack.
Contractor employees apprehended before the 2003 Super Bowl game in San Diego had no connection to terrorism, Cornelius said.
"But it is these kinds of targeted actions that are politically attractive," Cornelius said, especially in a political climate where much spending is justified under the banner of national security.
"This is one of the things they can do to justify their cut of the security pie," he said.
ICE has requested $23 million in budget enhancements for work- site enforcement in 2005, which according to budget documents would more than double its level of resources for traditional work-site enforcement.
Leslie Berestein: (619) 542-4579; firstname.lastname@example.org