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Immigration crackdown snares state's 'fence man'

U.S. government, for whom he'd done work, found undocumented employees at Melvin Kay's company. Would he be jailed?

January 20, 2008|Elliot Spagat | Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — That the government wanted to put Melvin Kay behind a prison fence is an irony, though one that neither he nor his accusers would find amusing.

Mel Kay builds fences. His was the largest fence-building company in Southern California; he rode the nation's housing boom to $150 million in annual sales. His fences are just about everywhere -- gated subdivisions, military bases, prisons.

He even built fences at two immigration jails, a Border Patrol station and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Which is the second irony, because he admits now that many of his company's fences were built by illegal immigrants. Federal authorities knew it, and they went after him tenaciously, determined to send him to prison as an example to other employers who hire undocumented workers.

They had plenty of evidence. Prosecutors determined that about a third of his 750 workers were illegal immigrants. They told Kay's lawyers of videotaped interviews with about a dozen employees who had been caught in raids at Golden State Fence Co. in 1999 or 2004 -- exposed as illegal immigrants -- and then rehired by the company.

Kay thought he was toast.

But this lean, sun-baked 65-year-old had two things going for him: He was tough, and he was tender.

The story of Kay's rise and fall -- based on court documents, government records and interviews with his employees and associates, federal investigators and Kay himself -- begins in Glendale, where he was born the fourth of 11 children.

His father, who moved to California from Oklahoma during the Depression, had a gambling problem and died of a heart attack at 47. His mother, daughter of Italian immigrants, never drove a car or wrote a check.

The Kays moved up and down California, farming almonds, tomatoes and other crops.

Mel began picking fruit when he was 7 and attended more than 20 schools before dropping out when he was 16 to work at a lumber yard. He recalls how his bosses would stiff him on payday.

Kay and a friend borrowed $8,000 to start a fence and garage-door business in 1968. In 1977, he moved to Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, to open a sawmill. It failed, but not before a saw had severed a finger and part of his right hand.

Kay returned to California to start Golden State Fence in 1984 with five employees and was on a roll by the early 1990s. Almost from the start, he relied on illegal immigrants.

Nearly all his workers took advantage of the 1986 amnesty, but he soon struggled to fill jobs. He shunned applicants who came in off the street, instead relying on Mexican employees to recruit family and friends.

"They were more trustworthy and more apt to stay long-term," Kay said in an interview at his Riverside office, a sparsely furnished room with a white linoleum floor and an empty desktop.

Kay acknowledges depending on illegal workers as the housing market grew in the 1990s and exploded in the first half of this decade.

"I'd never experienced any boom like that," he says. "It was almost out of control."

Installing fences is punishing labor, especially in Southern California's desert heat and rocky soil. Kay requires job applicants to hoist 60 pounds over their heads and move wheelbarrows of dirt. About 75% of his workers are Latino.

But Kay compensates his employees well. New hires start at $35,000 a year and jump to about $60,000 after three years. Full-time workers get health and life insurance, sick leave and at least two weeks' vacation.

The business prospered. An array of small companies bought fences from Kay's factory. Other customers include major homebuilders and the government, which accounts for about 30% of revenue.

In letters to the judge in Kay's case, they lauded the variety of Golden State's designs and materials and its track record on big projects.

"Golden State Fence is able to take on the larger government fencing projects that most other fence companies just simply could not perform on," read one from the Army Corps of Engineers, which hired Golden State for work on several military bases and, in 1997, on a mile-long stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego.

In agent's sights

Joe Flores was Mel Kay's nemesis.

The El Paso native and son of Mexican immigrants began policing federal immigration laws in 1987 after 10 years as a Texas state trooper. A year earlier, the government made it a crime to hire an illegal immigrant; the offense became a felony in 1996.

Now, at age 53, he is a group supervisor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. From his office on the second floor of downtown San Diego's federal building, he directed the raid on Golden State Fence.

Flores strongly believes that U.S. jobs should go to citizens and legal residents. He is skeptical of Kay's claims that Golden State couldn't find enough of them to dig ditches for $60,000 a year, with benefits.

"If you're paying good wages, why risk your company? Why put yourself in that situation?" Flores says.

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