Anti-Immigration Bill Could Drive Farmers Out of Business: Rubashkin’s Catch-22

The law would require employers to use the federal government’s Social Security databases to determine if an applicant is authorized to work in this country. It’s a simple procedure on the surface. Employers type in the person’s Social Security Number to verify that he or she is legally eligible for employment.

 

Instead of curbing illegal immigration by tightening border and visa control, the bill would be putting the burden of control almost exclusively on business owners.

 

Proponents hail the measure as a promising tool to uncover illegal aliens and open up jobs for unemployed Americans. But critics say the E-Verify system is flawed and inaccurate, and will likely cause more harm than good.

 

PLAGUED BY INACCURATE DATA

 

They say the bill signals the emergence of a “surveillance state,” in which the federal government would be allowed an unprecedented level of monitoring over citizens’ lives.

 

This would be bad enough if the E-Verify program were reliable, opponents say. But experts who have studied the internal Social Security apparatus on which E-Verify is based say it is plagued by inaccurate records and is vulnerable to identity theft and employer fraud.

 

A study by the Department of Homeland Security found that E-Verify was only able to ferret out undocumented immigrants 46 percent of the time, as it is unable to determine when a worker is using fraudulent identity information.

 

If E-Verify is implemented, many eligible workers would find themselves unauthorized to work due to glitches in the system that could take days and even weeks to correct. The legislation allows an applicant who has been disqualified by E-Verify only eight days to prove the system was in error, or be subject to being fired or rejected for employment.

 

The wide margin of error, with the financial losses it forces on individual workers and their families, is wholly unacceptable, opponents say.

 

DO IMMIGRANTS STEAL JOBS?

 

The E-Verify bill was introduced in May by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The system has been in use since 1986, but on an optional basis. Smith’s bill would make it a requirement, and there could be criminal penalties for employers.

 

“With unemployment at 9%, jobs are scarce,” Smith said in a statement when he introduced the bill. “Despite record unemployment, 7 million people work in the U.S. illegally. Those are jobs that should rightfully go to legal citizens,” he said.

 

Although Congress has yet to pass the E-Verify bill – and with Democrats in control of the Senate, passage is doubtful – some states are going ahead on their own. The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld Arizona’s E-Verify law. Other states, such as Georgia, Mississippi and Utah, have enacted their own E-Verify laws.

 

Opponents say that until the federal government closes all the loopholes, there should be no legislation mandating the use of E-Verify. Employers should not be saddled with a verification tool that doesn’t work. And thousands of Americans should not lose their jobs because of data errors.

 

How sound is the claim that immigrants are stealing American jobs, a key complaint of anti-immigration forces?

 

Many scoff at this notion, saying that regardless of high unemployment, few American workers are willing to do the work performed by undocumented workers, even if wages were to be raised.

 

Farm owners and advocates in the agriculture industry are adamant on this point. “Americans – even people desperate for a job – don’t want to do strenuous farm work under a blazing sun,” Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau, said in a New York Times article. “They don’t want to pick berries. They don’t want to pick lettuce. They’ll show up for a week and two and then quit. They just don’t want to do the work.”

 

A recent Oregon University study concluded that a removal of large numbers of undocumented workers, supposedly clearing the way for jobless Americans to find work, would not significantly reduce the unemployment rate. As one member of the committee put it, “Your average American who finds himself unemployed will not milk cows or dig ditches.”

 

FARMERS FIGHT

 

Farmers across the country are rallying to fight the bill. They say the E-Verify law would drive them out of business by causing serious labor shortages. The farmers say the proposed new law could cripple a $390 billion industry that relies on hundreds of thousands of willing, low-wage immigrant workers to pick, sort and package produce.

 

“This would be an emergency, a dire, dire situation,” Nancy Foster, president of the U.S. Apple Association, is quoted as telling the New York Times. She said the prospect of an E-Verify check would scare off immigrant workers. “They would simply not show up to work. We will end up closing down.”

 

Thousands of farmers nationwide who rely on illegal labor to harvest their crops are in the same situation.

 

In an article in The Columbian, a Washington-based paper, Steve Sakuma, co-owner of Sakoma Brothers Farms, candidly admitted that about 80 percent of his largely Mexican workforce are in the country illegally, even though they had provided him with the necessary documents.

 

Like countless other farmers nationwide who rely on illegal labor to harvest their crops, Sakuma fears that he’d promptly go out of business if Congress forced employers to electronically verify the legal status of their employees.

 

“These illegal immigrants are here doing what other people won’t do,” Sakuma said. “If you think that white America is going to come out here and pick these strawberries, you have been living in the dark for a long time.”

 

DEPORTED WORKERS RETURNED – WITH NEW NAMES

 

Sakuma said the immigration system is so broken, it is impossible to take it seriously. To make the point, he told a story about how his farm was raided a few years ago by federal authorities, who found that some of his employees were in the country illegally.

 

“They hauled them down to the border,” Sakuma said. “Three days later, they were back in our office, but they had a different name and a different Social Security number!”

 

In the Columbian article, Sakuma recalled consulting with two immigration lawyers in Seattle about this comical predicament.

 

“Both of them told me the same thing: ‘You have no choice but to hire them back. If they provide you with a name, and they provide you a Social Security number, you have no choice but to believe them.’”

 

With so many politicians talking about border security, Sakuma said he worries that Congress will pass the mandatory E-Verify legislation. He just wants members to consider the consequences on farmers across the country.

 

“I’m being totally honest with you, Sakuma said. “Because I believe – I don’t know this for a fact, because as far as I’m concerned they’re all legally documented – but it’s my belief that 80 percent of them don’t have the right kind of documentation. You take away 80 percent of my workforce and it’s goodbye. If they had E-Verify here, you’d shut us down. Absolutely.”

 

IT’S ABOUT COMMITMENT

 

Wisconsin dairy farmers David and Deborah Reinhart spoke about a similar predicament in theNews Tribune, a Wisconsin paper. They said they started hiring Mexican immigrants 11 years ago, when they couldn’t find enough local workers to help them milk the cows around-the-clock.

 

Reinhart said he believed the “new wave of immigrants” would continue the American story of arrival, hard work, settlement and assimilation – like their own immigrant ancestors.

 

For a while, things were fine. But as immigration has grown into a political lightning rod, the Reinharts, like other farmers across the country, find themselves in a precarious situation.

 

“The reason I have immigrant workers is not about the cost of paying them – we will pay what they’re worth – but the immigrant workforce has a commitment to the job that you can’t find in the local labor market,” Reinhart said.

 

“Right now, dairy is the No. 1 industry in Wisconsin. If it catches a cough, the economy gets the flu.”

 

FORCING FOOD IMPORTS

 

As he sees it, there are only two choices: “Your food will be produced by a foreign worker in this country – or it will be produced and imported from another country.”

 

Critics of the bill say Americans will only understand the impact of the bill on agriculture after it’s been in use for a while and prices begin soaring.

 

The bill will put food production in this country at risk, Reinhart says. “If we allow food to go offshore like we have other products, because foreign imports are cheaper, we will become a second-class world power.”

 

“We’re scared,” the Reinharts admitted. “We might be breaking the law, but we don’t know it,” Reinhart said. “We would never break the law, but it’s close. All we’re trying to do is manage a business and feed the world, and here we find ourselves in a terrible kettle of fish.”

 

CANDID ADMISSIONS

 

The Sekuma brothers in Washington and the Reinharts in Wisconsin reflect the reality of countless farmers and business owners. In a moment of startling candidness, they admitted in media interviews that the bulk of their workforce is almost certainly illegal. Their defense is that they suspect it but don’t clearly know.

 

While employers must fill out and keep on file what are called I-9 forms, attesting to the employees work eligibility, it technically has not been the employer’s responsibility to verify these documents. They are filled with legalese that it takes a specialist in I-9s to understand.

 

Not only that, but employers who examine things too closely can get themselves into hot water with the Justice Department.

 

The DOJ just last week filed a lawsuit against Mar-Jac Poultry Inc., a poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia. Prosecutors allege that Mar-Jac engages in “discriminatory conduct” against immigrants by requiring them to produce additional documentation during the I-9 process proving their eligibility to work in the United States.

 

The company’s owners were trying to stay on the right side of the law by nailing down which of their employees were legal. It didn’t help. They fell afoul of other laws contradicting the laws they were trying to uphold.

 

THE RUBASHKIN CATCH-22

 

No one knows the Catch-22 in this absurd situation better than Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, who, as manager of the former Agriprocessors, not only had a system put into place to screen out illegals, but hired specialists in I-9 forms who could detect forged or fake documents.

 

Mindful of anti-discrimination laws, he also hired a “facial expert” who could discern the true ages of Hispanic workers whom his human resources managers suspected were underage, but from whom they were not permitted to demand additional documentation.

 

Despite these expensive measures and precautions, the federal government prosecuted Sholom Mordechai with unprecedented ferocity, after raiding the meat-packing plant and finding hundreds of workers with invalid or fake papers.

 

His financial trial was filled with ridiculous allegations that he had financed the purchase of false papers and that he had “gathered up I-9 forms” and hidden them ICE investigators when the company was raided.

 

The fact that high-priced specialists from a leading immigration firm were in the office carefully screening out false I-9s on the very day of the raid powerfully refuted the prosecutors’ claims. But in one of the most prejudicial and harmful moves by the trial judge, Sholom Mordechai was prevented from defending himself by citing the presence of the specialists.

 

Judge Linda Reade, siding with the prosecutors who objected to the evidence, barred it from the jury.

 

At the June 15 appeal hearing in St. Louis, Chief Judge Riley asked Assistant U.S Attorney Peter Deegan if the outlandish 27-year prison sentence imposed on Sholom Mordechai “was driven by the immigration charges.”

 

Deegan answered in the affirmative, saying the immigration violations were all “part of the bank fraud.”

 

It is hard to imagine a more vivid illustration of fraud than that statement. One can only hope that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals will grant Sholom Mordechai his constitutional right to a fair trial, where fraud has no place and federal prosecutors are forced to play by the rules.