Government

Gov. Reynolds open to state-level E-Verify system in wake of Mollie Tibbetts' death

Governor says she would prefer federal solution instead

Dane Lang (right) co-owner and farm manager of Yarrabee Farms speaks to the media about farm employee Cristhian Bahena Rivera as his father Craig Lang stands in the background at the farm in Brooklyn, Iowa, on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018. Rivera, 24, is charger with first-degree murder in of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Dane Lang (right) co-owner and farm manager of Yarrabee Farms speaks to the media about farm employee Cristhian Bahena Rivera as his father Craig Lang stands in the background at the farm in Brooklyn, Iowa, on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018. Rivera, 24, is charger with first-degree murder in of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday pressed Congress and President Donald Trump to make needed reforms to U.S. immigration policy and indicated she would consider a state-level system to verify workers’ legal status but said she would prefer such information be coordinated at the federal level.

In speaking to reporters after a Des Moines Rotary appearance, Reynolds said she would be open to discussing the creation of a state-level E-Verify system to confirm that people applying for work in Iowa are U.S. citizens or have some sort of legal residency status.

“I know there are some states that have done that, and it’s been challenged (in court) and they were successful,” the Republican governor said. “I think truly what would be the best would be a federal system.

“The main thing is we need to make sure that we are communicating and that we’re coordinating,” she added. “A lot of times when you have different states doing different things, that’s an issue.”

Having a system to verify the legal status of workers in Iowa has become an issue since the discovery of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts’ body earlier this week following her disappearance July 18 while jogging in her hometwon of Brooklyn, Iowa.

Authorities charged Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, with first-degree murder in her death but have not revealed a motive. They said Rivera confessed to the crime. According to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, Rivera is an undocumented immigrant

— raising questions about how for years he was able to live in Brooklyn and work at a dairy farm. Yarrabee Farms officials indicated they did not use the federal E-Verify system as a cross-check to verify Rivera’s legal status.

E-Verify is an online system run by the U.S. government for employers to check the eligibility status of their 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 in the U.S.

In a statement Thursday, the Iowa Department of Transportation said a review of its records showed Rivera was not issued a state identification card or driver’s license under his name or any other name.

Rivera’s attorney, Allan Richards, insisted in a motion filed Wednesday with the Poweshiek County District Court that his client is in the United States legally, pointing to Rivera’s employment as a farmhand at Yarrabee Farms.

However, farm owners Dane Lang and his father, Craig — a prominent Iowa Republican — told reporters Wednesday that Rivera had given them a false name and a Social Security number, which did not trigger alarms when they sought to verify his information with the Social Security Administration.

Talking with reporters Friday, Reynolds said future discussions about verifying the identity of workers likely would include state fines for businesses that employ undocumented workers, but she noted businesses have expressed frustration that the federal E-Verify system is not current, accurate or reliable. Ultimately, she said immigration-related issues have to be addressed at the federal level.

“I think politics is preventing us from getting something done,” Reynolds said. “We need workers. But we need a system that works, and this one does not work. ... It’s time that they get it fixed.”

Asked if Tibbetts’ death would rekindle debate in Iowa over reinstating capital punishment, Reynolds was noncommittal, telling reporters “as the Legislature comes back into session next year, we’ll talk about what our priorities look like at that point.”

Reynolds, who issued a statement Tuesday after Tibbett’s body was discovered saying Iowans are angry about a “broken immigration system” that let a “predator” live in Iowa, said she spoke with the Tibbetts’ mother Tuesday to express her condolences.

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“It was just a heart-wrenching phone call. It’s not a phone call that any mom wants to make,” Reynolds said. “So we continue to keep them in our thoughts and prayers but so do Iowans. Iowans’ hearts are breaking, and this nation’s hearts are breaking. These are senseless deaths, and they just have to stop. We continue to reach out and keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”

l Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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