The decision by Congress earlier this year to walk away from the immigration issue did not mean immigration problems walked away from the poultry industry. The failure of lawmakers to move past inflammatory rhetoric and craft effective solutions to real problems is creating a labor crisis that cannot simply be ignored for the sake of electoral convenience. If comprehensive reform is not practical or achievable, then Congress must find a way to deal with at least some of the critical flaws in the current law.
The process by which companies and the government verify a worker's legal status needs fixing. Poultry companies cannot fill all available jobs from the local labor pool despite paying double the minimum wage and providing benefits unavailable to workers in many other unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. Foreign-born workers must be hired if plants are to be staffed fully.
Determining which workers are legally documented to work in the USA and those that are not has become an increasingly difficult task. Identity theft has become very sophisticated and immigration law has not caught up with those trying to cheat the system.
Currently, employers are limited in the types of documents they can request to determine a worker's legal eligibility, and the federal government is equally limited in its ability to share resources in verifying eligibility. Even the Basic Pilot, though helpful in some respects, does not always provide employers with accurate eligibility verification. The problem lies in the fact that initial federal verification determines only whether the name and the Social Security Number match, and if the Social Security account is active. Immigration and Social Security officials currently cannot share critical data on whether a person is somehow simultaneously working six different jobs in five different regions of the country.
The Senate immigration reform bill included a vastly improved electronic verification plan, one that would allow Social Security and immigration officials to more rapidly identify cases of identity theft. Employers who used the system in good faith would have been exempt from enforcement action. The Senate plan would have helped employers catch these cases at the outset and discourage illegal immigration by making it harder for undocumented workers to obtain jobs.
One indication of this problem's complexity is the recent "No-Match" rule published by the Department of Homeland Security. Under the rule, when the Social Security number of a worker does not match the one on file with the Social Security Administration, a letter is issued to inform the establishment and worker of the situation. If an employer follows the procedures in the rule to resolve a "No-Match" letter, then a "Safe Harbor" will be created for those employers against knowingly hiring or continuing to employ illegal workers. There is still concern, however, that employers may not retain the safe harbor exemption anticipated due to the Department of Homeland Security's interpretation of the employer's actions.
The National Turkey Federation (NTF) is not taking the defeat of comprehensive immigration reform to mean that no immigration laws can be reformed. We're starting with electronic verification, an issue that should not be as controversial as guest-worker visas or pathways to citizenship. A viable and timely electronic verification program would help to alleviate obstacles when trying to verify the legal working status of an applicant. The current electronic verification program, E-VERIFY, is set to expire in September 2008. NTF has joined an industry coalition to develop a strategy for modifying and reauthorizing E-VERIFY to make it more efficient and timely.
This effort is vital, because the current system creates a situation whereby an employer could make every effort to determine a workers eligibility, receive verification from the government that there appears to be no undocumented workers, and still face the prospect of a government raid to root out illegal workers the government itself could not find on the first pass.
The current verification system does a poor job of identifying undocumented workers and is not fair to employers who are making every effort to comply with the law. If the government has the ability to determine the worker's legal eligibility, it seems a better system can be in place for pre-approval before they are hired.
It is clear this system needs reforming. NTF is more than willing to help, but we need our congressional representatives to commit to fixing this difficult dilemma. If this flawed verification system doesn't need reforming, then one has to wonder what does.