By Stewart Doan

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.


Washington, June 15 - A House Judiciary panel heard testimony Wednesday on legislation that would require employers to electronically certify worker eligibility.

Farm and commodity groups contend that any mandatory E-Verify requirement would be highly disruptive to the agricultural workforce, and advocate the inclusion of provisions in the legislation that will make the bill workable for producers and processors of perishable commodities such as fruits, vegetables and milk.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said his Legal Workforce Act aims to crackdown on illegal immigration and provide more job opportunities to unemployed Americans.

“With unemployment at 9%, jobs are scarce.  Despite record unemployment, seven million people work in the U.S. illegally.  These jobs should go to legal workers,” Smith said during a hearing of the Immigration Subcommittee.

His legislation repeals the current paper-based I-9 system and replaces it with a completely electronic work eligibility check. Employer compliance would be phased in over two years and be limited to new hires.

Farm laborers would be subject to an E-Verify check within 3 years of enactment. Under the bill, an individual engaged in seasonal agricultural employment is not considered a new hire if the individual starts work with an employer for whom they have previously worked.

Smith’s legislative solution to illegal immigration fails to recognize the needs of agriculture, testified Tyler Moran, policy director at the National Immigration Law Center.

“There’s this illusion of a carve-out that really isn’t a carve-out because of the re-verification, and the bill incentivizes companies to rely on labor contractors – who aren’t the true employer – to get around these verification requirements,” she said. 

A strictly domestic workforce cannot meet the needs of the produce industry, says the United Fresh Produce Association, an industry trade group. Upwards of 75 percent of specialty crop workers are thought to be undocumented.

“We must look to guest worker programs to provide essential labor to fill these jobs,” stresses United Fresh.

E-Verify would have a chilling effect on the dairy industry, too. Over 40 percent of its laborers are foreign-born.

A 2009 study by Texas AgriLife Research sponsored by the National Milk Producers Federation calculated that a 50 percent reduction in the dairy immigration workforce would lower U.S. milk production by nearly 8 percent, leading to a 30 percent increase in retail prices.

State laws mandating E-Verify already are on the books in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana and Utah.

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