WASHINGTON -- A House Republican bill that would require businesses to screen for undocumented immigrants is facing a growing bloc of opposition -- even from within the GOP.
At a Thursday markup of the bill, which would mandate the use of an electronic screening system called E-Verify, one Republican Judiciary Committee member worried aloud that it would hurt agriculture businesses and drive workers underground. Democrats, who by and large oppose the bill, have been airing the same complaints for months, and are now forming an unlikely coalition with conservatives and Tea Partiers who oppose parts of the bill.
"I just can't abide with what we're doing to my state in terms of the temporary need for temporary workers," Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said. "It would devastate agriculture. … If we do not recognize the demonstrated need for foreign workers, and I'm talking about temporary foreign workers in the agriculture field, we're kidding ourselves."
Tea Party groups, including Take Back Washington, Tea Party Nation and Liberty Coalition, bought a full-page ad in Politico on Thursday criticizing the mandatory E-Verify bill. They also sent an open letter to members of Congress asking them to oppose the bill to avoid disastrous consequences for American citizens.
"Punishing businesses and telling citizens they can't work is no way to stop illegal immigration...or fix the economy," the ad reads.
According to the groups' letter, the mandatory E-Verify is problematic because it:
1. Creates a de facto national I.D. System - even for citizens;
2. Violates individual civil liberties such as the right to work and free speech;
3. Mandates a costly job-killing regulatory burden that cripples small business;
4. Requires employers to become enforcement agents of the federal government;
5. Encourages identify theft of law-abiding citizens
Some Republicans in Congress have the same problems with the bill, worrying it will hurt the American agricultural industry or take away state's rights to police undocumented immigration.
Although he supports making E-Verify mandatory for businesses, Lungren asked his colleagues to include a measure that would allow visas for temporary workers in agriculture.
"I stand as a supporter of E-Verify, but I also have to say, unless we recognize the specific, demonstrated need for agriculture and respond to that with a workable program, I'm afraid E-Verify won't pass and won't become law," he said. "I'm also afraid that if it were to become law it would devastate agriculture, and I just don't see why we have to do that."
Agricultural groups said at a hearing in June that a mandatory E-Verify bill could drive out vital employees that may not be easily replaced by American workers. An estimated 80 percent of workers in the agricultural industry are undocumented and few citizens apply, perhaps because of the long hours, low wages and back-breaking work.
"Few citizens express interest, in large part because this is hard, tough work," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak said in June. "Our broken immigration system offers little hope for producers to do the right thing."
Some business owners also say the bill increases the number of bureaucracy hoops they must jump through in hiring workers, costing an estimated $2.6 billion to implement for small businesses. The program is already mandatory for government agencies and contractors, and open for use by independent companies.
Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), a freshman who is not on the Judiciary Committee, also opposes the E-Verify bill, although for a different reason. He said in a press release in June that the bill preempts states' rights to find their own ways to fight undocumented immigration.
"On paper, the Legal Workforce Act sounds good, but in reality it will be just another law the federal government doesn’t enforce," he said. "If this bill becomes law, states and municipalities will be powerless without the federal government acting first."
Liberal critics of the mandatory E-Verify bill, for their part, are eager to point out the dissent for the bill from the right in arguments about why E-Verify would not work. They argue that the bill should be coupled with comprehensive immigration reform that legalizes many of the current undocumented workers.
"It can't be done alone," Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said of E-Verify at the Thursday hearing. "Without those other reforms, mandatory E-Verify would create enormous damage."
But both groups face a Judiciary leadership that is staunchly in support of the bill, particularly Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and immigration subcommittee Chairman Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.).
They say that E-Verify would protect American jobs by driving out undocumented workers, rejecting the claim that the undocumented people primarily take the jobs Americans will not.
"Anyone who cares about unemployment in America should care about opening up jobs for them," Smith said at the Thursday hearing. "Yes, E-Verify is a jobs killer, but only for illegal workers."
CORRECTION: 9/16 6:15 p.m. -- Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) does not support the bill in its current form, as was previously stated. "While Congressman King is a supporter of the use of E-verify, and he finds much in the Chairman's bill that he can support, he has serious concerns about the bill as it is currently written," John Kennedy, a King spokesman, said on Friday. "In particular, Congressman King is concerned about the bill's preemption language, the bill's failure to require the verification of returning agricultural workers, and the inability of employers to voluntarily verify the statuses of individual employees. He is looking forward to the opportunity to address these issues during the upcoming markup, and it is inaccurate to characterize him as a supporter of the legislation at this point."