DES MOINES — Iowa businesses would be required to use an electronic verification system to ensure its employees are legal U.S. residents under a proposal advanced Wednesday by statehouse Republicans.
And any business found to be employing workers who are not legal U.S. residents would lose state licenses and permits under the proposal.
“I think it’s only fair to law-abiding citizens, whether employees or employers, to have their elected officials and their governments back them up and take away the unfair competition that comes in from people who are here illegally who work for substandard wages,” said Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, who ran the bill, Senate File 243.
Immigration issues typically are left to the federal government, but Garrett and Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, said the proposal is needed as a security measure while federal lawmakers remain unable to pass immigration reform.
Schultz said the federal government is “inept, incoherent and irrelevant” when it comes to immigration issues, later clarifying that he does not include in that description President Donald Trump, whom Shultz called “a breath of fresh air.”
Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said he also is frustrated with federal inaction on immigration reform but he still thinks the state should defer to the federal government on immigration policy.
Hogg also expressed concern that the proposal places too much burden on county attorneys and said he wanted to learn more about the potential for errors in the electronic verification system.
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Under the bill, all employers must use the federal E-Verify system to confirm any hire is living in the U.S. legally.
According to a 2013 report from the Bipartisan Policy Center, a national think-tank, one report suggested E-Verify’s error rate was just 4.1 percent — 3.3 percent of which were unauthorized workers incorrectly authorized and 0.7 percent of which were authorized workers who were wrongly rejected.
But the report also found that E-Verify caught just more than half the workers it should have rejected, an issue that the report attributed to document fraud.
Last August, questions arose about how an illegal immigrant charged with the murder of Mollie Tibbitts in Brooklyn, Iowa, had been allowed to work for years as a farmhand in the area. At a news conference then, a Yarrabee Farms manager said family members thought they had vetted Cristhian Rivera through E-Verify before hiring him, but mistakenly used a Social Security Administration program that did not catch he was using a false identity.
Dave Stitz, the owner of a Des Moines construction company, said he has used E-Verify for a dozen years. He is required to use E-Verify when working on federal government contracts, but Stitz said he uses it for all hires regardless of the job. He said the system is easy to use and typically reliable.
But Stitz also made a plea to lawmakers that immigration reform is needed to bring immigrants living in the country illegally out of the shadows so companies can feel comfortable hiring them. Stitz said he has a difficult time finding workers willing to do construction work, and that he regularly looks first for foreign-born workers when hiring.
“We have such a hard time finding that work ethic,” Stitz said. “Let’s just get (immigrants here illegally) in the mix and make them legal. That’s my personal opinion.”
The bill requires county attorneys to prosecute any business found to be employing workers living in the U.S. illegally and creates punishments up to the suspension and, on second offense, revocation of business licenses.
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Garrett said his proposal is modeled after a similar Arizona law that was cleared in a legal challenge that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This bill and what we’re trying to do, it helps both the law-abiding employer and the law-abiding employee, and right now they’re being unfairly taken advantage of. And we all just look the other way,” Garrett said.
Business groups that testified at Wednesday’s hearing mostly said they were neutral or undecided on the bill, and some stated concerns in how such a law might be applied. One group, the Iowa Chamber Alliance, said it could not support the legislation because of its uncertainty with the accuracy of E-Verify.