Company in inquiry built fence at border | Feds look for hiring of illegal immigrants
Union Tribune (2006-11-24) Joe Cantlupe
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WASHINGTON -- A California company under investigation on suspicion of hiring undocumented workers won a contract in the late 1990s to help build the San Diego border fence with Mexico to thwart illegal immigration, federal records show.
Federal authorities said there is no indication that the company, Golden State Fence Co., which has an office in Oceanside, hired undocumented workers on the fence project.
Over the past year, Golden State has been the focus of an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security for allegedly hiring undocumented workers on several projects, including those at military bases. No charges have been filed.
In 1997, Golden State received a contract worth more than $590,000 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to work on a portion of the 14-mile barrier separating San Diego from Tijuana.
As authorities continue their investigation, they acknowledged in recent interviews and public documents that Golden State had worked on a portion of the fence project.
"How can (the federal government) not be embarrassed?" said Steve Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter limits on immigration.
"But the fence itself is a great metaphor, no matter how you slice it," for Washington's inability to stem illegal immigration, Camarota said.
Officials from Golden State, based in Riverside, did not return repeated phone calls. In past interviews, they have said the company has acted properly in its hiring practices.
The construction of border fencing has become a contentious symbol of the debate over illegal immigration along the 1,900-mile border between the United States and Mexico. Less than 100 miles of the border is fenced, primarily in heavily populated areas.
President Bush recently signed a bill that would add 700 miles of fencing, well beyond the San Diego area to other parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Golden State was involved in the construction of only a 6,100- foot portion of the fence at Otay Mesa, as well as vehicle and pedestrian gates, said Jay Field, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Los Angeles.
The project was the "secondary fence" -- also known as the Operation Gatekeeper fence -- that officials began in 1994. The tightly woven, chain-link steel fence extends about 14 miles, and is about 15 feet tall and angled to prevent would-be climbers."
Field said Golden State's performance was rated "satisfactory or above average."
Golden State specializes in building fences for residential, commercial and government projects throughout California. It has received millions of dollars in federal contracts, mostly on military bases, including North Island Air Station in Coronado.
In recent years, Golden State has received many warnings not to hire illegal workers, government officials have said. Inspections showed that undocumented workers continued to be hired, sources said.
The company has been audited under a two-year program called Operation Safe Cities, which targets military contractors and other businesses deemed critical to national security. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Homeland Security Department, is involved in the audits.
In December 2005, federal agents raided Golden State's Oceanside and Riverside offices, carrying out boxes of payroll records. The raid marked the second time in less than 15 months that the company was cited for hiring more than a dozen undocumented workers.
Authorities said the company apparently rehired some workers after being told specifically not to hire them again. It was the third time since 1999 the company had been found employing undocumented workers.
A Golden State official said in 2004 that 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, said then.
Job applicants must present identification showing they are authorized to work in the United States, but employers aren't required to verify its authenticity.