Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Student's murder, allegedly by undocumented farmworker, draws fresh attention to agriculture's reliance on them

The recent murder of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts has drawn fresh attention to the common practice of hiring undocumented immigrants as farmworkers, Alan Gomez reports for USA Today. Cristhian Rivera, who has been charged with the jogger's murder, is an undocumented Mexican immigrant who worked at Yarrabee Farms near Brooklyn, Iowa. The Labor Department conservatively estimates that 47 percent of the nation's 1.4 million field workers -- about 685,000 workers -- are undocumented. Mostly because of farm lobbies, lawmakers have treated farmworkers more gingerly than other undocumented immigrants. For instance, a bipartisan immigration bill that failed in 2013 would have given farmworkers and their families legal status and a path to citizenship.

"Many Republicans are citing Tibbetts' death as a reason to pass a bill requiring all U.S. companies to use the federal E-Verify system to check the immigration status of all job applicants. But even that bill – the Legal Workforce Act filed by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas – gives farmers 2½ years before they must start vetting their field workers, the only such exception," Gomez reports.

But farmers and other business owners that rely on the undocumented say they're already struggling to find enough legal workers, and that requiring them to use E-Verify without any other changes to the immigration system would hurt them. "Farmers across the country saw exactly what would happen if the government took an enforcement-only approach after Arizona passed an anti-immigration bill in 2010, leading a half-dozen states to follow suit," Gomez reports. "The laws, which included the requirement that all businesses use the E-Verify system, sent undocumented immigrants out of those states in droves." 

Finding legal immigrants or native-born Americans to fill the gap has been unsuccessful. Farmers say the solution is a nationwide guest-worker program that eliminates some of the bureaucratic headaches of the current H2A visa program for farmworkers, Gomez reports.

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