Government

Iowa ag secretary candidates talk immigrant worker issues in wake of Mollie Tibbetts' death

Mike Naig.
Mike Naig.
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JOHNSTON — Both candidates seeking to become Iowa’s next agriculture secretary said they support requiring businesses to use a federal database to confirm the residency status of immigrant workers and financial penalties on businesses that employ workers living in the U.S. illegally.

Republican Mike Naig and Democrat Tim Gannon discussed the issues Friday during a taping for this weekend’s episode of “Iowa Press” on Iowa Public Television.

The topic of immigrant worker policies has come into focus in Iowa after the death of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old woman from Brooklyn, Iowa, whose body was found this week. Christhian Bahena Rivera, an immigrant farm worker who the state says was living in the country illegally, was charged with first-degree murder in the slaying.

The suspect’s employers say he gave them a false name and fake documents when he was hired, and that they did not use the E-Verify system, the free federal database that allows employers to verify whether an individual is authorized to work in the country.

Rivera’s lawyer disputes the allegations and says he was here legally.

Immigration policies largely are the federal government’s responsibilities, but states can enact some policies.

More than 20 states require some employers to use E-Verify, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most mandates concern only public agencies and their contractors; just nine states require all private businesses to use E-Verify, according to the group.

Naig and Gannon both said Friday they would support an E-Verify mandate in Iowa.

“I think that E-Verify is the system that makes the most sense to give employers a certainty that the person they’re hiring is here legally, and as far as they can check that out, they have that certainty, then that’s what we should encourage people to use,” Gannon said.

Naig said while he supports mandating its use, E-Verify is not a catch-all solution.

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“It will not address the larger labor issue that we do have. And that’s ‘Do we have a functioning, predictable system?’” Naig said. “If we start to enforce our laws that we have on the books, what we will likely see is more folks wanting to use a guest worker program. That’s logical. That means we have to have a system that functions.”

Both candidates also supported fines on businesses that employ workers living in the U.S. illegally.

“Absolutely, if we have people knowingly employing illegal workers, there should be strict penalties for that,” Naig said.

Said Gannon, “Absolutely. Anyone who’s breaking the law, whether it’s the employee or the employer, should face penalties.”

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