E-Verify Splits Ag

E-Verify, the electronic verification system for U.S. worker eligibility managed by the Department of Homeland Security, is a voluntary system used by 287,000 employers in the United States. The site will handle an expected 16 million cases this year, and that is expected to increase as more states mandate E-Verify.

There is a push in Congress to mandate E-Verify on a national level, which has agricultural producers worried about finding labor in an already tough environment. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has pushed for mandatory E-Verify for years, and this may be his final opportunity to get it through. The Smith bill passed conference this summer and will now be debated on the House floor. Smith submitted another bill to address the guest worker issue, but it is unlikely to pass as it is written.

Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) attempted to attach an amendment to Smith’s E-Verify bill when it passed out of committee, but was ruled out of order. The amendment, called the Agricultural Guest Worker Program, has been a work in progress since the 1980s to address the labor issues in California. The amendment, which Lundgren will submit as a proposed bill, would address the shortages of H-2A, which he said cannot accommodate 20 times or more workers than are currently in the program to get the number of agricultural workers needed. He never saw H-2A as the savior of agriculture, he said.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it (H-2A) doesn’t work,” Lungren said. “It is imperative that we get this right.”

Lungren said in order for agricultural’s needs to be met, a guest worker program should be linked to an E-Verify bill.

The negative effects of mandatory E-Verify with no guest worker program were evident this summer in Georgia, which passed a state-wide mandatory E-Verify bill on May 13. Four days after passage, and two years before the program would be phased in, growers began reporting labor shortages and migrant labor bypassed the state’s harvest. There were between 30 percent and 50 percent no-shows on harvest crews, said Charles Hall, president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association. Heat and drought conditions compounded the problem, and as a result many fields were left unharvested or only partially harvested.

Hall’s association commissioned the University of Georgia to conduct a survey of growers in the state to determine losses. The survey results were released last month, and they represented 31,000 acres, or about half of the acreage in the state. Nearly 80 percent of the surveyed growers said they had a labor problem this summer. The most affected crops were blueberries, blackberries, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers and watermelon, with a combined loss of $74 million. Across all crops, the loss was estimated at $140 million, or 24 percent of the farmgate value, according to the study. The indirect loss to communities was estimated at more than $106 million.

The University of Georgia study estimated a labor shortage of 5,200 workers – or 40 percent short of what is needed. The combined total effect to the state for respondents was estimated at $181 million, and extrapolated out to the entire acreage the total effect was estimated at $391 million and 3,260 jobs, Hall said.

Not only will the lost labor and crops have an effect this season, but the mandatory E-Verify bill will have an effect in coming years. Growers were asked in the University of Georgia survey if they would plant fewer acres next season, and vegetable growers said they would plant 30 percent to 50 percent less in 2012. Berry growers generally said their acreage would stay the same, Hall said.

On a national level, E-Verify could be devastating to agriculture if not accompanied by a guest worker program.

“For better or for worse, it’s going to happen, sooner or later,” said Paul Schlegel, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We want the broadest possible program that fits as much of ag as possible.”

Farm Bureau, which has not endorsed the Lungren or Smith bills, estimates that there could be $5.9 billion in farm losses if a fix to the guest worker program isn’t found. Agriculture proponents have split in the past, but Schlegel said there needs to be a unified voice that keeps agriculture whole, from dairy to produce, for their message to be heard. It is an uphill battle, he said, because both conservatives and labor unions dislike guest worker programs, so both sides of the aisle need to hear the message.

But E-Verify legislation is popular in politics right now, and it’s generally supported by business, if not agriculture.

“The problem in agriculture is unique to agriculture,” said Craig Regelbrugge, vice president of government relations and research for the American Nursery and Landscape Association and co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform. “We lose all credibility if we flat-out oppose E-Verify.”
But, he said, if politicians find a fix for guest workers, than agriculture can a vocal supporter of E-Verify. The Smith and Lungren bills have good and bad in them, but Regelbrugge said the Lungren bill has the best structure for agriculture. However, both the Smith and Lungren bills have visa terms, and both ignore the status of current workers, he said.

DHS improving E-Verify

Of the 16 million cases E-Verify will handle this year, 98.3 percent will be automatically confirmed to work in the United States with no further action required by the employee or employer. Of the remaining cases, 0.3 percent will be confirmed later, with the most common issue being married women whose last name don’t match their social security numbers, followed by errors on behalf of the employer entering the information.
To continue to improve the acceptance rate, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is adding features and streamlining the E-Verify website, said David Pittman, management and program analyst for DHS. The site now allows additional forms of information, with a new photo matching component. The additional capabilities allow the employer to match the image on employees’ forms, passports or identification cards with the image in the system.

As of June 12, the RIDE-DMV program allows E-Verify to check driver’s licenses in E-Verify. The program was launched in Mississippi and 99 percent of cases were matched immediately.
The E-Verify site has been streamlined for ease of use and has an enhanced case screen that displays B and C documents similar to the I-9 form. The site also allows for future start date entry so employers can check new hires authorization even though they may not start right away. Spanish language users can now more easily use the site with a Spanish launch, and educational videos are now available on the site to train employers on using the service.

A new program was launched by DHS in March that allows employers to perform an E-Verify self-check. This allows job seekers to perform a check of their authorization before employment, and fix any mismatches before they’re offered a position.

—By Scott Christie

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