Public Safety

Mollie Tibbetts death spurs calls for stronger E-Verify, immigration reforms

Farm that employed suspect mistook Social Security process for E-Verify program

A blue ribbon waves in the wind outside a store with a poster for Mollie Tibbetts in Brooklyn on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A blue ribbon waves in the wind outside a store with a poster for Mollie Tibbetts in Brooklyn on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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The family that employed a farmhand charged with killing Mollie Tibbetts is calling for a “comprehensive, traceable worker program” after mistakenly believing, they said, they had verified he was legally in the country before hiring him four years ago.

“We are still shocked to learn that one of our employees was involved” in the death of Tibbetts, a 20-year-old college student from Brooklyn, Iowa, who was last seen alive on July 18, Craig Lang said Wednesday.

For the past four years, Yarrabee Farms — the Lang family’s sixth-generation farm operation near Brooklyn — employed Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, now charged in the killing.

Lang, former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Board of Regents, unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for state agriculture secretary earlier this year.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday on the family’s Poweshiek County farm, he said the nation needs an immigration policy to “identify people who are here, identify where they live, what the work is and (that) these people have to live within the law of the land.”

“That’s the kind of immigration system we need, not only for agriculture, but for many other industries within the state,” said Lang, whose family operation has a 700-head dairy herd, farms 1,200 acres and runs a cow and calf beef operation.

Legal immigration is vital for Iowa agriculture, Sen. Chuck Grassley said Wednesday. It’s a frequent topic at his town-hall meetings and discussions with farm commodity groups and food processors.

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“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.”

Nationally, more than half of dairy workers are immigrants, according to a 2015 industry-sponsored study, with farms that employ immigrant labor producing 79 percent of the nation’s milk.

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

At the news conference, Yarrabee farm manager Dane Lang said family members thought they had vetted Rivera through E-Verify and that he was a legal immigrant. The state-issued photo identification and Social Security card Rivera provided were submitted to a Social Security verification process that the family thought was the same as the cross-referencing E-Verify, Dane Lang said.

“In the last 24 hours, we learned that our employee was not who he said he was,” Lang said. “In last four hours, we have come to learn that the Social Security Administration verification service is not the same as E-Verify.”

Lang said he learned that one of the farm’s employees was the suspect in Tibbetts death “when everyone else found out” on Tuesday afternoon.

Lang said some of the farm’s 10 full- and part-time workers have been there 25 years. He described workers as “upstanding community members.” One’s son was homecoming king and another’s daughter was valedictorian.

Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he believes the case “highlights the fact we need an even stronger E-Verify system.” He again has called for making the Department of Homeland Security’s program mandatory for employers.

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“Based on the information I do have, it seems this murder was preventable,” Grassley said Wednesday on the Senate floor.

In a recent Op-Ed written with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, Grassley called E-Verify “the most effective tool available to fight illegal immigration.” They said 82 percent of voters support it and one-third of employers voluntarily use E-Verify and 1,500 more employers sign up for it each week.

However, Grassley acknowledged that when he’s tried to make it 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 on Wednesday in Urbandale. He expects lawmakers to take up immigration issues in September.

“You’re not going to get everything you want but you have to advance the ball, to get this moving,” Young said.

That’s because, Grassley said, 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” — adding he was being “a little facetious.”

Young said he was aware “a lot of employers” voluntarily use the E-Verify program and he was concerned if there were “vulnerabilities” in the system or tougher financial and licensure penalties that should be imposed for employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers.

“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?” he said.

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

Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.

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