Going After The Big Crooks–Employers

Going after the big crooks – employers

Ruben Navarrette, Jr.

December 20, 2006

Christmas came early for those of us who believe that the only honest way to combat illegal immigration is to bring criminal charges against the employers who hire illegal immigrants.

That's what happened recently in a case involving Golden State Fence Co., a Southern California-based company that has built fences on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants. The company and two of its executives recently pled guilty in U.S. District Court to knowingly hiring illegal immigrants in violation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Perfect. And don't kid yourself. This doesn't seem to be a case of a well-meaning employer who tried to do the right thing but couldn't tell a fake ID from a real one. According to federal investigators, Golden State Fence Co. had repeatedly been warned not to hire illegal immigrants but did so anyway. The company even rehired some workers after being told not to because the workers were here illegally.

How brazen. It's as if company officials either didn't care about the law or perhaps never thought they'd get caught. Now that they have worked out a plea agreement with the government, the company and top executives have openly admitted to repeatedly hiring illegal workers between January 1999 and November 2005.

During roughly the same period, Golden State Fence Co. which now employs about 750 people enjoyed a boom in business. According to The Associated Press, sales for the company went from $60 million in 1998 to $150 million in 2004.

As part of the plea, the company agreed to pay a penalty of $4.7 million. In addition, Mel Kay, company founder, chairman and president, will hand over $200,000, and office manager Michael McLaughlin agreed to pay $100,000.

The charges also call for potential jail time, anywhere from six months to five years, for the two executives. Sentencing is set for March 28.

This sort of thing happens only once in a blue moon. Criminal prosecutions of those who hire illegal immigrants are incredibly rare. Much too rare, if you ask me. The law should be rewritten to make it easier for the government to go after employers, even those who aren't as blatant as Golden State Fence Co. about flouting the law. And any federal crackdown shouldn't come with exemptions for the casual user those private citizens who have come to depend so heavily on gardeners, nannies and housekeepers.

Still, even the threat of civil penalties is enough to sometimes make employers and those who defend them squeamish.

I've seen tough-talking Republican candidates for Congress stumble and stammer when asked if their crusade against illegal immigrants extended to confiscating the assets of companies that hire illegal immigrants. And I've seen members of the Minutemen, that border vigilante group, stand up at public forums and express heartfelt concern about those poor employers who might have their Fourth Amendment rights trampled by authorities in work site raids.

Some of the most recent raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement occurred just last week. The target was Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in six states: Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, Colorado, Utah and Minnesota. Those raids netted 1,282 illegal immigrants. But the company wasn't charged with any wrongdoing, and neither were any executives or supervisors.

Did company officials know that they had so many illegal immigrants working for them? Believe what you like. But consider this: Swift & Co. executives have said they tried to work with immigration officials to prevent the raid and that once they became aware of ICE's interest in their work force in March conducted internal interviews of employees. More than 400 workers left the company. According to Swift's general counsel, at one point, ICE asked the company to stop the interviews which probably alerted workers that a sweep was coming.

I bet officials at Golden State Fence Co. are sorry they didn't think of that gimmick. Lawyers for Kay and McLaughlin say they'll ask for leniency at the sentencing hearing. But what the defendants deserve is some time in a jail cell.

It's people like these who are the source of the problem and yet they fly quietly under the radar, making their profits, while opportunistic politicians, law enforcement and border vigilantes are content to pick on illegal immigrants who can't vote, usually don't speak English and can't defend themselves.

That's not sporting. In fact, it's just awful, and it runs counter to the best traditions of a country that prides itself on not singling out the little guy while the big guy is free to hire again.