Jul 14, 2011
Ag employers feel the pinch from E-Verify, state reforms

If you weren’t familiar with E-Verify before, you’re probably familiar with it now.

E-Verify is an Internet-based system that compares information from an employee’s I-9 form to data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Social Security Administration (SSA) to confirm employment eligibility, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a division of DHS.

Some employers are already required by state or federal law to use E-Verify. For example, most employers in Arizona, Georgia and Mississippi have to use E-Verify because of recently passed laws. E-Verify also is mandatory for employers with federal contracts or subcontracts that contain the Federal Acquisition Regulation E-Verify clause, according to USCIS.

A bill currently in the U.S. House of Representatives seeks to make it mandatory for all U.S. employers to use E-Verify. The Legal Workforce Act, introduced June 14, would give agricultural employers more time to implement the system than other employers.

“We recognize that the agriculture industry is a special situation and we need to treat them differently,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas and the bill’s sponsor. “We do not require them to check current employees that return to work. That allows them to build on their current workforce and every year transition into a more legal workforce.”

The bill would give agriculture – where officials in Smith’s office say the vast majority of workers are illegal – three years to screen all new hires to make sure they are eligible to work in the United States. Non-ag employers would have two years to comply.

According to the National Council of Agricultural Employers, the bill fails to address agriculture’s unique labor needs – and the extra year given to the ag industry won’t help ag employers much, since the provision contains so many conditions.

“E-Verify is a successful program to help ensure that jobs are reserved for citizens and legal workers,” Smith said. “It takes just a few minutes to use and easily confirms 99.5 percent of work-eligible employees.”

The bill would replace the current paper-based I-9 system with a completely electronic work eligibility check, according to Smith’s website. The bill would preempt state laws mandating E-Verify use but retain the ability of states and localities to condition business licenses on the requirement that the employer use E-Verify in good faith under federal law. It also grants employers safe harbor from prosecution if they use the E-Verify program in good faith, and through no fault of theirs receive an incorrect eligibility confirmation.

State actions

E-Verify has been around since 1997, in one form or another. It has been thrust into the spotlight with the recent headline-grabbing immigration reforms in Arizona, Georgia, Alabama and other states, according to the Washington Post. As public demand grew due to inactivity on the federal level, several states reacted with new, stricter immigration laws. Some of those laws would allow police officers in those states to question anyone about his or her legal status. According to the wording of the Georgia law, found on the state’s website, anyone questioned and not able to prove their status could be turned over to federal authorities for deportation procedures. Many of these laws are being challenged in federal courts.

Along with Arizona, Georgia and Alabama, states such as Idaho, Utah, Missouri, Texas, North Carolina, Maryland, Minnesota and Colorado have either passed tougher immigration laws or are proposing them. Many news agencies and public forums are calling Alabama’s laws the most strict because they require schools to verify citizenship and make it illegal to even give a ride to an illegal immigrant, according to The Washington Post.

The effects of these immigration laws are already being felt. The Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association recently conducted a survey of state growers. The results showed that nearly half of the 132 farms that responded are experiencing a labor shortage. This was before the new rules actually took effect on July 1. The governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, responded to the survey by saying that prisoners and probationary convicts could fill the need. Regardless, Georgia farmers have been forced to leave millions of dollars of blueberries, onions, melons and other crops rotting in the fields, according to a report published in The Atlantic, an online newspaper published in Georgia.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder said he didn’t think the state needed a new immigration law, but there are two new bills being debated in the state House of Representatives that would require the use of E-Verify. While not specifically aimed at agriculture, these bills could affect farm laborers, according to Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB).

“It would be irresponsible for Michigan, in the middle of a growing season, to begin running these types of bills without understanding what the unintended consequences are for agricultural producers,” said Rob Anderson, legislative counsel for MFB.

According to Denise Donohue, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, growers are concerned about laws that require verification.

“What I’m hearing from my growers is a fear that workers, either legal or not, will simply hold up where they are and not move around following the harvests like they normally do,” she said. “We normally view the asparagus harvest in Michigan as the labor barometer, to measure if we’ll have enough workers come fall harvest season. From what I’ve heard, they were roughly 15 to 20 percent short on labor this spring.”

The Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) is working with different commodity groups to ensure that the message of good working conditions, fair wages and fair regulation gets out to laborers across the country, said Jennifer Holton, a public information officer at MDA.

“We suggest people call their local employment agency for the latest on working in Michigan agriculture,” Holton said. “We’ve heard there will be an abundance of crops this season and we will work to get our growers the labor they need to harvest that crop.”

Getting started with E-Verify

The first step in using the E-Verify system, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is to register.

Employers can register at https://www.vis-dhs.com/EmployerRegistration. The site provides step-by-step instructions for completing registration.

Employers are required to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that provides the terms of the agreement between them and DHS. An employee who has signatory authority for the employer can sign the MOU, according to DHS.

E-Verify uses an automated system that involves verification checks of Social Security Administration (SSA) and DHS databases. The process is easy to follow, once an employer is registered, according to DHS.

After hiring a new employee and completing the I-9 form required for all new hires, the employer submits an online query that includes information from sections 1 and 2 of the I-9, including the employee’s name and date of birth, Social Security Number (SSN), citizenship status, the type of document provided on the form to establish work authorization status and proof of identity and its expiration date, if applicable.

The response to the initial query is sent within seconds of submitting it. Employers must also get a photograph of the person being verified, according to DHS.

If the person you are trying to verify does not have an SSN, you should complete the I-9 process with him or her and wait to run an E-Verify query on that individual until you have received his or her SSN. Note on the I-9 form why you have not yet run an E-Verify query. Your employee should get his or her number to you quickly. In the meantime, if you have completed the I-9 process with your employee, he or she will be allowed to work temporarily without an SSN.

For more information, visit the DHS website, or call USCIS at 888-464-4218.

Visit The USCIS website for more information on E-Verify.

By Derrek Sigler

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