Company in trouble again over undocumented workers | Immigration agents call rehiring pattern cause for concern
Union Tribune (2005-12-03) Leslie Berestein
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A fencing company that has contracted with the military was busted for the second time in less than 15 months Wednesday for hiring undocumented workers, some of whom federal immigration officials had specifically instructed the company not to rehire.
It is the third time the company has been found employing undocumented workers since 1999.
Wednesday morning, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, used federal search warrants to raid the Oceanside and Riverside offices of Golden State Fence Co., a Riverside-based company with locations throughout Southern California. They also went to the homes of several employees.
Altogether, there were 16 undocumented workers apprehended. Ten of them had been found to be working illegally for the company in the past, and were not supposed to be rehired. Federal agents also confiscated several boxes of payroll and other financial documents to be used in an ongoing criminal investigation of the company's hiring practices.
Golden State, which has done business on North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado, was first found to be employing workers illegally in 1999. Following a second audit in September 2004, 14 employees without work authorization were apprehended in their homes and placed in removal proceedings. Thirteen were from Mexico; one was from Guatemala.
Last year, a Golden State official said the company was duped by workers with counterfeit documents.
"They presented to us what appeared to be legal documentation to work in the United States," Gary Hansen, vice president of administration, told The San Diego Union-Tribune then. "It's a shame."
Hansen didn't return calls.
Federal investigators aren't so sure company officials were fooled. One of the employees arrested Wednesday was a man repatriated to Mexico after he was found working at Golden State illegally last year. He had re-entered the country and was rehired.
"The company was informed that these people were in the country illegally, and yet they are still being employed," said Frank Marwood, acting special agent in charge of ICE in San Diego.
"Regardless of whether anyone had a license or a fake document, most employers tend to know their employees by sight."
Marwood would not comment on whether the investigation will extend to other Golden State locations, listed on the company's Web site as El Centro, Anaheim, Palmdale, Palm Desert, Bakersfield and Santa Paula. He did say, however, that the case would be presented to the U.S. Attorney's Office for a decision on whether the company would be prosecuted.
"There is no doubt about it," he said.
ICE officials said the company did work for the military last year. They were not sure if there was a current military contract, but that the company recently bid on one.
Golden State is the first San Diego-area company to face a criminal investigation since ICE began auditing local military contractors and other businesses deemed critical to national security as part of Operation Safe Cities, a two-year-old program under which more than 700 San Diego and Imperial County businesses have been audited.
More than 350 workers have been arrested since, but no employers have faced sanctions.
Federal immigration laws are written in a way that places the onus on investigators to prove that an employer knowingly broke the law. Job applicants must present identification showing they are authorized to work in the United States, but employers aren't required to verify its authenticity. With counterfeit documents readily available, employers have an easy out.
According to ICE, it has been more than 10 years since the last criminal prosecution of a San Diego-area company for violation of immigration laws. An individual subcontractor was prosecuted in 2001.
What raised red flags for investigators in the Golden State case was the pattern of rehiring, ICE officials said. In 1999, when a tip led immigration officials to audit the company, 15 people were found working illegally. Last year, the company came under scrutiny again as part of the Safe Cities audits.
When investigators checked its records last year, they found that the company was employing people that it had been asked to terminate, and not rehire, back in 1999.
"They connected the dots in that the same employees' names were appearing on lists," Marwood said.
ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack said it was unclear if, among those arrested Wednesday, others had re-entered the country illegally. She said that past audits identified additional people working illegally for Golden State who could not be located, and so they were not arrested. Last year's audit revealed 48 people working there illegally at the time. While only 14 were found and arrested, the company was supposed to fire all of them.
"Maybe they never even fired them," Mack said, adding that employees arrested are being interviewed in hopes of getting a clearer picture of the company's hiring practices.
Leslie Berestein: (619) 542-4579; email@example.com