A California construction company and two of its executives pleaded guilty to knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. They've agreed to forfeit $5 million. Golden State Fence Company has built millions of dollars worth of fencing around homes, offices and military bases. The company even built a section of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Federal prosecutors say when it comes to hiring illegal immigrants, the Golden State Fence Company knew no boundaries. After an immigration check in 1999 found undocumented workers on its payroll, Golden State promised to clean house.

But when follow up checks were made in 2004 and 2005, some of those same illegal workers were still on the job. In fact, U.S. attorney Carol Lam says as many as a third of the company's 750 workers may have been in the country illegally.

Ms. CAROL LAM (United States Attorney): This case illustrates the flagrant abuse of our immigration laws by some corporate employers who encourage illegal immigration by offering jobs to those they know do not have permission to work in the United States.

HORSLEY: As part of its guilty plea, Golden Gate agreed to forfeit $4.7 million, and its president and one of its Southern California managers will pay fines totaling $300,000. The government is also recommending jail time for Melvin Kay and Michael McLaughlin, probably about six months.

Ms. LAM: This is an egregious case, and we felt that jail time was appropriate. Certainly, other companies should take note that the government did insist on jail time in this case for the principals of the company.

HORSLEY: In fact, it's exceptionally rare for those who employ illegal immigrants to face any kind of criminal prosecution, let alone jail time. Earlier this week, for example, immigration raids on six meat packing plants netted almost 1,300 suspected illegal workers, but no charges were leveled against the company that runs the plants, Swift.

Golden State Fence's attorney, Richard Hirsch, admits his client broke the law, but he says the case proves that construction companies need a guest-worker program.

Mr. RICHARD HIRSCH (Golden State Fence): I'll tell you something. The work that this company performs, it requires people to stand in hot sun, sometimes 100 degrees or more, digging holes in the deserts, and it's tough to get people to do that kind of work.

HORSLEY: Golden State is now part of a pilot program with the federal government that allows employers to verify workers' employment documents online. Golden State says for the last year, all of its employees have been subjected to the screening. Hirsch challenged competitors to do the same.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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