Senate File 84 is a bill that would require Iowa employers to use the federal E-Verify system. The bill passed through its Iowa Senate subcommittee hearing Monday with support from Republican Senators Jason Schultz and Julian Garrett.
Garrett noted the E-Verify system is set up in the Homeland Security department of the federal government to enable employers to make sure the people they hire are legally able to work in the country.
“It’s a violation of federal law to hire people who are not in the country legally,” Garrett said. “Unfortunately, quite a few employers do that.”
The E-Verify system is voluntary at the federal level. More than 5,000 Iowa employers use the program, but Garrett said many others do not.
“This bill would require Iowa employers to check when they’re hiring new employees to make sure they’re here legally,” he added.
Democrat State Sen. Kevin Kinney said when the bill was originally introduced a couple of years ago, he believed it was a good idea to hold employers accountable.
“It was actually going after someone besides the immigrant,” he said.
But after that, he learned from the ACLU as well as CATO Institute that it may not be a great idea. Kinney said there’s a mistake rate of 40 percent.
Kinney said some people will just go out and get a social security number from someone who has died.
“A lot of these illegals are going to have a social security number,” he said.
But with concerns about mistakes, Kinney said he’d rather just fingerprint everyone.
Garrett took exception with the 40 percent error rate, saying figures from Homeland Security are “very different.”
Brad Hartkopf, who represents ABI, said the group is opposed to the bill.
“We don’t look at this as an immigration issue, we look at it through the lens of a business mandate imposed on businesses,” he said.
Similar legislation had an exception for smaller employers and would’ve only applied to employers with 25 or more full-time workers.
Hartkopf also said he is concerned about the severity of the proposed penalties. The second violation would mean a revocation of all business licenses.
“We believe that is pretty draconian,” he said.
He added that E-Verify is not a fool-proof system and it is open for fraud. All of the states with a blanket mandate for the program are southern states or western states, he said.
“ABI believes that the federal government should be addressing this issue,” he said.
Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference said the group doesn’t oppose the program, but they support leaving enforcement of the issue to the federal government. Chapman also expressed concern for those who are falsely flagged and cannot find work because of it.
Dustin Miller of the Iowa Chamber Alliance and Greater Des Moines Partnership noted the E-Verify system has a lot of challenges and is flawed. He added that the mandate on businesses is worrisome.
Miller raised concerns about the citizen complaint aspect of the bill.
“That can really be used as a sword against competitors, which is somewhat of a worrisome aspect,” he said.
He also said that in a state like Iowa, it could negatively impact the agriculture industry. Miller said the legislature should be “sensitive” to the workforce needs of the ag industry in Iowa.
Erica Johnson, the director of American Friends Service Committee Iowa (AFSC), said her organization offers legal services and advocacy for the immigrant community. Johnson said the group is against the bill.
“Really what this seems like is an attempt to, you know, rather than actually working to push the federal leaders to reform our immigration system in a way that benefits our economy and treats immigrants and refugee workers with the dignity and respect they deserve, it’s a divisive anti-immigrant proposal that will end up harming minority communities in Iowa,” she said.
Johnson called it ineffective and unreliable. She said a woman in the community applied for a job not long ago and was flagged despite being eligible for employment.
They were able to correct the issue, but she said she’s concerned with individuals who do not have access to an organization able to work with them through the system.
“It is going to put additional barriers in front of Iowa workers when we’re already struggling from a global pandemic that’s been recking havoc on our economy,” she said. “It’s another anti-immigrant bill that doesn’t actually solve any problems.”
Instead, Johnson wants to see the legislators push Congress to put in place humane immigration reform.
Laura Hessburg with the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence said that group also opposes the bill.
“We too have served clients in our programs that have been sort of, not just victimized by their violent crime but victimized by errors in this system,” Hessburg said. “And it’s especially hard in a pandemic when people are working hard to keep jobs and then someone gets flagged or denied a critical source of income or job. It takes a lot of effort to untangle that.”
Hessburg said the bill is very “onerous” and is “unnecessary.”
“Immigrants are fueling our economy right now and saving a lot of Iowa’s small cities,” she said. “Efforts like this sort of, that make it harder for businesses to employ people and harder for people who want to work to stay employed are harmful.”
Karl Schilling with United Electrical Workers and Iowa United Professionals said the bill would have made a lot more sense 20 years ago when people were “bringing illegal immigrants in to bust unions, to bring them in for cheap labor, recruit them for construction work and landscape work at orchards and so on and bring them in cheaply and illegally so that they couldn’t complain.”
“It was, to many employers, the black market system in illegal immigrants was not a problem, it was a solution to them when they wanted cheap labor,” Schilling said. “I’ve often told people that not one immigrant has taken one job from a citizen. Every job they got was given to them by an employer who acted just as illegally and with less cause because they weren’t doing it out of desperation but of greed.”
Now, Schilling said, the immigrants are here and have been working the jobs a lot of people don’t want to do.
“They have been good members of the community,” he said. “Their crime rate per capita is less than the community as a whole and it appears that they may in fact be on the verge of a path to citizenship. And it seems that as this process is just beginning to happen, to jerk away their opportunities for employment at the very time when they might become good citizens of Iowa, it’s bad timing, it’s unintentionally cruel and it’s a bill that it’s time has not come and I think we should oppose it.”
Lori Chesser, an immigration attorney, said not to underestimate the burden this bill would place on small businesses. E-Verify adds another level to an already complex I-9 system, she said.
“It’s just a really hard thing to comply with,” she said. “I know the federal government will tell you otherwise, but I see the problems with it every day in my practice and the difficulty of filling out those forms correctly not to mention the difficulty with getting accurate results on those forms. Just keep in mind it will hurt small business.”
Chesser said it will hurt citizens as well because they too can be wrongly flagged.
Kinney reiterated that he doesn’t believe the accuracy rate is high enough to “make people jump through hoops to harm them basically.”
Schultz said he is more concerned with leveling the playing field for all Iowa employers.
“We have some who are doing their best to comply with employment law, immigration law and they are using this,” he said. “We have folks who are flouting the law and just ignoring it and they’re getting away with a competitive advantage that they should not have.”
Schultz said he respects the sentiment that the federal government should enforce federal law, but it is up to the states to decide whether or not they want to nullify federal law by ignoring it or if it is in the best interest of the state to go ahead and help enforce it.
Garrett said he has talked with a number of Iowa employers who use the system and every single one said it is very simple to use.
“It’s just one additional step added on to the things they already have to do,” he said.
Garrett said in addition to the I-9, the employer has to submit copies of the driver’s license and social security card.
“That pretty much filters out the legals from the illegals,” he said. “If you got someone’s driver’s license, and they are not the person they claim to be, the driver’s license is going to have a picture on it. You’re going to have social security number, date of birth, name and address and it’s really a lot tougher now than it used to be to get around the system.”
The E-Verify folks say almost 98 percent of the inquiries made result in a positive response, Garrett said. The other two percent includes a very small number of errors. Most are not qualified, but a common error may be a woman who was recently married and her name changed, creating a glitch in the system.
“But when errors like that happen, they can be corrected,” he said.
Garrett said he’s always felt allowing people to hire illegal immigrants in violation of federal law is unfair to “almost everybody else.”
“It’s unfair to other businesses who obey the law and have to compete with their competitors who are cutting their costs by hiring people who will work for substandard wages – that’s unfair,” he said. “If you are a person looking for a job and you have to compete with people who will work for substandard wages, that’s also unfair. We ought to be, I would think, more concerned about the welfare of our citizens than people who are not citizens and who are not here legally.”
Garrett also expressed concern with the new administration opening up the borders and causing an influx of new illegal immigrants.
“You know, we can be overwhelmed – our institutions, our medical care, and education, our welfare system,” he said. “it’s expensive enough to take care of the people who are legally entitled to those things, let alone a big number of other folks.”