Bill would require use of ‘E-Verify’ to check workers’ immigration status

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Iowa lawmakers moved forward a proposal to make hiring undocumented workers a crime and require employers to use the federal E-Verify system. (Photo by Getty Images) / Los legisladores de Iowa presentaron una propuesta para tipificar como delito la contratación de trabajadores indocumentados y obligar a los empleadores a utilizar el sistema federal E-Verify. (Foto de Getty Images)
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By Robin Opsahl, Iowa Capital Dispatch

Advocates for businesses and immigrants spoke Wednesday in opposition to a bill in the Iowa Senate that would require employers use the federal E-Verify program to ensure they are not hiring undocumented immigrants.

Republican senators on a subcommittee voted to advance Senate File 108, legislation prohibiting Iowa employers from knowingly hiring a worker who is not authorized to live or work in the country.

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The bill is a holdover from the 2023 legislative session, when it advanced through the committee process but was not brought to the Senate floor. Similar bills have been considered in previous legislative sessions but ultimately have not advanced.

While lobbyists speaking on behalf of Iowa business groups said employers want to ensure they are not hiring undocumented workers, many brought forward concerns with the legislation requiring use of E-Verify. The federal web-based system shares a potential hire’s I-9 employment eligibility verification form with the federal Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security to ensure they are legally able to work in the country.

Dustin Miller, representing multiple business groups including the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, Iowa Chamber Alliance and Greater Des Moines Partnership, said the concern is that “the system doesn’t work.” He said there are currently 70,000 false positives each year among employers that use the system — many of those being workers under age 18 because they’re not yet in federal databases.

“I can’t stress enough: no one wants to employ unauthorized aliens,” Miller said. “If the system worked and it was simple, employers will not have a problem. But tied to a system that is broken causes these problems.”

Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, defended the system, saying that he has talked to many employers already using the system who say it is working as intended.

“You send it in, 99% of the time or more, you get right back, you get confirmation that it’s fine,” Garrett said. “… It doesn’t delay them, for the most part. Once in a while, something happens. What I do hear on a lot, is from just average citizens, not coming up here to lobby or whatever … who say, ‘we need to stop this illegal immigration, we need to stop people undercutting our wages.’”

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The legislation would make it a crime to knowingly employ an “unauthorized alien employee,” and would allow law enforcement, county attorneys and members of the public to file complaints with Iowa Workforce Development. If the employer is found in violation, IWD would be required to bring action in district court.

A first offense would require businesses fire all undocumented employees, serve three years probation filing quarterly reports on new hires and must sign a sworn affidavit to not hire undocumented workers. If a business does not file the sworn affidavit, the state would have the ability to suspend their business license. Subsequent offenses could mean the permanent loss of the employer’s business license.

Tom Chapman with the Iowa Catholic Conference said while the legislation allows for the court to consider whether a business made a “good faith” effort to comply with the requirements, he criticized the lack of options available for employees who are incorrectly labeled as undocumented workers under the E-Verify system.

“You know, when the E-Verify system comes back with a false positive, they’re not going to be able to get a job unless they can get that fixed, And that is a time-consuming, and can be a scary process if you’re trying to get a job.”

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Chuck Hurley, an advocate with The Family Leader, spoke as a matter of personal interest in support of the bill, saying that mandating the E-Verify system for employers will help with efforts to improve security and stop illegal immigration at the U.S-Mexico border.

“I don’t want to see any businesses harmed,” Hurley said. “But we’re at a crisis point, basically have an invasion. And everybody’s gonna have to do their part.”

Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, voted against advancing the bill, saying the number of businesses opposed to the measure should “give pause” to the lawmakers seeking to advance the measure. He criticized Hurley’s statement that there was an “invasion” happening along the U.S. southern border, saying that the characterization does not describe the “human tragedy that we’re seeing in real time” with migrants attempting to enter the country. He said the bill will not address concerns about the border.

“Every ugly thing that’s coming with what’s happening — Iowa’s not going to resolve it,” Bisignano said. “Iowa’s not going to resolve it with E-Verify. The nation hasn’t been able to resolve it, period, but E-Verify hasn’t solved that problem.”

Iowa Sen. Tom Shipley, R-Nodaway, supported advancing the bill, saying that it needs work to address the concerns brought up during the subcommittee meeting.

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