Government

Grassley demands answers on undocumented immigrant charged in Mollie Tibbetts' death

(File photo) Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) talks with reporters in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Mar. 21, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(File photo) Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) talks with reporters in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Mar. 21, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Sen. Chuck Grassley is demanding answers from the Department of Homeland Security on how the man charged with murder in Mollie Tibbetts’ death cleared the agency’s E-Verify system even though it considered him an undocumented immigrant.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, was charged with first-degree murder on Tuesday in the death of Tibbetts, a 20-year-old college student from Brooklyn, Iowa, who disappeared on the evening of July 18. Law enforcement found her body Tuesday in a rural Poweshiek County cornfield.

Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Wednesday asking for a briefing before the end of the week “to learn more about circumstances surrounding the tragic death of this young Iowan.”

The answers could help Congress address vulnerabilities in U.S. border security, and identify laws and enforcement practices that need to be changed, including the allocation of resources, Grassley said.

“We’re deeply saddened by the murder of such a bright young woman and fellow Iowan. We’re also deeply angry because this could have been prevented,” Grassley said, adding that Tibbetts and her family and friends are in his prayers “as they go through their incredibly difficult times.”

Grassley, who has sponsored legislation that allows undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally under Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals and offers them a path to citizenship, said the incident “highlights the fact we need an even stronger E-Verify system.”

Although Rivera was successfully vetted by the E-Verify system despite Homeland Security labeling him as undocumented, Grassley believes “if we had E-Verify and everybody had to do it, I think it would be done better.”

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According to Homeland Security, E-Verify “is a web-based system that allows enrolled employers to confirm the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States.”

“E-Verify is the most effective tool available to fight illegal immigration because it drastically reduces or eliminates the illegal jobs magnet,” Grassley and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, recently wrote.

They said 82 percent of voters and many businesses, “particularly those that already follow the law and seek to employ a legal workforce,” want E-Verify. One-third of employers voluntarily use the E-Verify program, and 1,500 more employers sign up for E-Verify each week, according to Homeland Security.

However, Grassley said Wednesday that when he’s tried to make the use of E-Verify mandatory for employers “the first stone wall is the Chamber of Commerce” and other business groups.

The House passed an E-Verify bill that stalled in the Senate, 3rd District U.S. Rep. David Young told the Westside Conservative Club in Urbandale on Wednesday. The Iowa Republican said he expected lawmakers to take up immigration issues when the current recess ends in September, and he said he is hopeful some improvements to U.S. immigration policies could advance.

“You’re not going to get everything you want, but you have to advance the ball to get this moving,” he said. “Some people want a perfect bill, and you’re never going to see a perfect bill, and perfection, unfortunately, is the enemy of the good in these situations.”

That’s because people on the right want to “round up 11 million people and ship them out of the country” and people on the left think “we ought to legalize everybody yesterday,” Grassley said, adding that he was being “a little facetious.”

Young said he was aware “a lot of employers out there” voluntarily use the government’s E-Verify program and he was concerned if there were “vulnerabilities” that needed to be addressed in the system or tougher financial and licensure penalties for employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers who are in this country illegally.

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“If there are vulnerabilities that we learn about, we’re going to figure out how that happened,” Young said in discussing the E-Verify topic. “Maybe it was because of false documentation here and there, and we want to make sure that we do the proper oversight and plug those holes because what’s the use of having E-Verify if it doesn’t work?”

That appears to be what happened in Rivera’s case, according to the Washington Post. The Post reported that law enforcement said Rivera was in the country illegally and used stolen identification to satisfy the E-Verify check by his employer, a local farmer.

Young did not discuss E-Verify in the context of Mollie Tibbetts’ death because he did not want to politicize a tragic situation, he told reporters after the meeting.

Immigration reform is important to Iowa because of the need for employees on farms and in food processing facilities, Grassley said.

“We’re the No. 1 egg-producing state (and) I can’t talk to egg producers without this being a problem,” Grassley said. “With big dairy farms — and they’re getting bigger all the time in Iowa, maybe even smaller dairy farms, you hear it. You hear it in the industrial hog production. Then you also hear it in the processing of our agriculture products. You hear it that we need more workers. ...

“So the key is to have a legal system to utilize immigrant workers instead of having people come here undocumented.”

Reporter Rod Boshart contributed to this story

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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