Vetting of immigrant workers: We can do better

posted Sept. 10, 2018 9:53 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Heidi Clausen, Editor |

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Immigration reform has been on Congress’ to-do list for years, and President Donald Trump has not been bashful about his desire to take a tough stance on the issue. But little actual headway is being made to fix the pervasive problems regarding non-resident workers, especially in agriculture, where they are essential.

The tragic, senseless murder of a young woman in Iowa this summer shined a spotlight on some of the gaping flaws in our immigrant worker system. Yarrabee Farms, the large dairy farm that employed the suspect charged with killing Mollie Tibbetts, defended its vetting of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, saying that Rivera passed the government’s background check and they didn’t know he was an undocumented immigrant.

Rivera, who the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation said is responsible for the 20-year-old University of Iowa student’s death, “has worked at our farms for four years, was vetted through the government’s E-Verify system and was an employee in good standing,” the farm said in the statement.

Farm owner Craig Lang — a former Iowa Farm Bureau president, member of the state’s Republican Party and unsuccessful candidate this year for Iowa secretary of agriculture who had campaigned for a comprehensive, traceable worker program — said he thought they had done everything right.

As for Rivera, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, he had worked at the northwest Iowa dairy farm for four years and had been in the U.S. for as long as seven years. It’s unclear how he passed the E-Verify check.

E-Verify is an online system run by the U.S. government for employers to check on the eligibility status of workers. The system checks records from the Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security, which Immigration and Customs Enforcement falls under, to make sure an employee is legally allowed to work here.

Tibbetts’ death also has forced us to take a good, hard look at the agriculture industry’s increasing reliance on foreign labor. It’s a dependence that explains why some employers don’t always take the extra steps to check workers’ documents, as they’re afraid they might discover inconsistencies, Madeline Cano, who leads Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement’s immigrant rights project, told the Des Moines Register.

“They need the work to get done,” Cano said, “so they’d rather not know. Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Nationally, more than half of dairy workers are immigrants, according to a 2015 industry-sponsored study. Farms that employ immigrant labor produce about 80 percent of the nation’s milk.

Workers with forged or borrowed documents sometimes play federal verification systems, and some farmers know full well that their employees aren’t here legitimately, but with the necessary paperwork in hand, they figure they’re protected. It’s time for the “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” approach to go away in favor of more certainty.

Tibbetts’ death elicited renewed outrage from proponents for immigration reform, including Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, who said, “We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community.”

Agriculture wants to do better and has a track record of problem-solving, but the problem is so much bigger than this industry. Arguing that farmers need a federal, mandatory verification system to protect both themselves and their employees from the consequences of hiring “identity fraudsters,” the American Dairy Coalition last week pushed federal legislators to immediately pass the AG and Legal Workforce Act, known simply as the AG Act.

Introduced by U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the legislation would establish a guest-worker program for the dairy industry and mandate use of the federal E-Verify system to ensure that all temporary, non-immigrant workers are properly vetted by the DHS.

“The AG Act must be passed concurrently with employee verification tools. Passing mandatory E-Verify without allowing for a method for our nation’s farmers to secure reliable labor would be devastating to the sustainability of the dairy industry. We must have a solution to resolve both issues in a parallel fashion,” said Laurie Fischer, CEO of the ADC, which represents 30,000 farmers.

Under the AG Act, agricultural guest-workers would undergo background checks and interviews to be certified by the DHS and granted a visa by the Department of State. Agriculture employers then would go one step further and verify all new hires’ documents via E-Verify. This process ensures guest-worker employees are not using fake papers to secure agriculture jobs in the U.S.

“It’s important for agriculture employers to have a system in place they can use to assure the people they hire are who they say they are. The AG Act allows for certainty in the hiring process,” Fischer said.

Despite better wages and benefits, critical roles on farms go unfilled, according to the ADC. These jobs often don’t appeal to domestic workers, and without a reliable workforce to fill them, businesses can’t grow or even sustain themselves. Imported labor has become a necessary part of staying in business in some segments of agriculture, according to the ADC, and without an efficient, reliable guest-worker program that provides a clear system of verification to ensure applicants are who they claim to be, farmers fall victim to identity fraud.

For the AG Act to pass, legislators must understand the importance of mandating a verification process, in combination with a guest-worker program for agriculture, the ADC said.

Immigration reform is long overdue and must allow for the process of hiring foreign workers to be completely on the up and up — for the protection and peace of mind of farmers, as well as those in their employ.

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