Iowa considers implementing employee-verification system after Mollie Tibbetts’ death

The employment of immigrants and the use of a state-level system to check the legal status of applicants is being considered after the slaying of UI student Mollie Tibbetts.


Nick Rohlman

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride on Saturday, June 9, 2018. The event raises money for veterans charities and provides a platform for state and national Republican officials to speak.

Elianna Novitch, Politics Reporter

Gov. Kim Reynolds recently said she would be open to implementing a state-level system that would check the legal status of workers in Iowa.

The issue of employing immigrants in Iowa was thrust into the spotlight after authorities revealed the man charged with murder in the slaying of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, had worked on Yarrabee Farms under a false name and had not been checked through the E-Verify system.

E-Verify is an internet-based system run by the U.S. government that allows employers to check the immigration status of applicants.

The Iowa Policy Project estimated in 2014 that undocumented immigrants represent approximately 2.5 percent of the state population — around 75,000 persons. The Pew Research Center estimated that 40,000 immigrants worked in Iowa as of 2014. That statistic includes both authorized workers and those here without documentation.

“The governor is open to discussing the creation of a state-level system, but she believes a federal system would be best, because immigration is a federal issue,” Reynolds’ press secretary Brenna Smith said in an email to The Daily Iowan.

Some of the jobs filled by immigrant workers are in the agriculture and livestock sectors.

“Immigrants who are here legally and hired legally are important, because those jobs are hard to fill and often hirees are gifted and skilled with livestock,” said Dal Grooms, the communications director of the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

While some states require employers to use E-Verify, Iowa does not.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, the use of E-Verify is required in 22 states, for some or all employers. The use of E-Verify is mandatory for federal departments and agencies, federal contractors and certain subcontractors, and certain employers previously convicted of hiring unauthorized immigrants.

The Migration Policy Institute reported that advocates of E-Verify say it is a tool that can be used to deter the employment of unauthorized immigrants. Critics of the system contend that mandating E-Verify would incentivize employers to move off the books, and even in states where it is mandated, it has not resulted in total compliance.

Director of American Friends Service Committee Iowa Immigrant Rights Program Erica Johnson said that, like with many government databases, the E-Verify system has flaws in accuracy and implementation, but it doesn’t address many larger problems.

“When we are talking about immigration policy and economic needs, it’s not even a Band-Aid. It doesn’t address the economic labor needs that our country has,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t address the violence around the world that pushes people out of other countries. It doesn’t address family ties that when individuals migrate for any reason that they should be honored and people’s dignity. It doesn’t address the history of [U.S.] international intervention that causes upheaval in other countries.”

Iowa House and Senate Republican leadership did not respond to requests for comment.

While Iowa does not currently mandate the use of E-Verify, Rep. Bob Kressig, D-Waterloo, a member of the state House Public Safety Committee, said that in the past, bills have been introduced in the Legislature to require the use of it in Iowa, but that it had not moved forward as of last session.

“The Legislature can look at the requirement of E-Verify. Not sure if employers [want] the requirement,” Kressig said in an email to The Daily Iowan. “I’m sure there will be discussions regarding the requirement of E-Verify in the 2019 session. We will have to wait and see what additional information regarding the requirement of E-Verify.”