Farmers, immigrant groups join to push against E-Verify

Bill would slow use of employment eligibility database

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SEATTLE -- In Olympia, it’s not often that immigrant advocates and farmers are on the same side of a bill.

But they have teamed up this session to push a measure aimed at slowing the adoption of a federal program to check individuals’ eligibility to work in the country.

Known as E-Verify, the Internet-based program has been adopted by 11 Washington cities and counties.

Supporters of the program say it does a free and easy background check and avoids paperwork problems that could mean losing workers to questionable documents or facing fines for hiring an illegal immigrant.

“The reasons Lakewood approved E-Verify were to protect the legal workers and to create fair wages in the labor market,” said Michael Savage, director of government affairs for the Pierce County city. “If undocumented workers are taking jobs illegally, it artificially deflates the wages.”

But Lakewood and Kennewick are largely alone in opposing the bill that would slow down E-Verify.

Backers have lined up a formidable coalition of farmers, immigrant groups, labor and religious groups, while other key interest groups in Olympia, including business organizations, have remained neutral.

“Sometimes you find common ground and it makes all the sense in the world to join forces in trying to win your battle,” said Mike Gempler, director of the Washington Growers League.

Gempler has teamed up with OneAmerica, the state’s largest immigrant advocacy group, to push the bill.

Farmers and immigrant groups have often clashed, mostly on minimum wage, housing conditions and other issues of workers’ rights.

But the two groups have find common ground on the issue of illegal immigration. Farmers need the labor. Advocacy groups often decry stern enforcement by the federal government.

And sometimes the alliances are not necessarily public. Farmers mostly stayed on the sideline publicly last year when moderate and conservative lawmakers of both parties pushed to demand proof of citizenship when obtaining a driver’s license. OneAmerica and others fought hard to kill the bill, which eventually did not get a floor vote.

On the E-Verify bill, Gempler’s counterparts at the state Farm Bureau have decided to remain neutral.

“We have some members who are supportive of this legislation, some who feel the bill does not harm or help agriculture in the short term, and some who are concerned about the unintended consequences of pursuing any state legislation (pro or con) on E-Verify,” the farm bureau wrote in a statement to lawmakers.

Both Gempler and OneAmerica executive director Pramila Jayapal say that a national overhaul of the immigration system is needed before more enforcement is mandated, and state and local governments shouldn’t interfere.

“We’re not saying we never want E-Verify, but do it when you have immigration reform,” Jayapal said.

For Gempler, a worst-case scenario would be for Washington to follow the steps of Arizona or Alabama, which have made E-Verify mandatory for all employers.

The Washington bill is preemptive. It stops both the state and local jurisdictions from adopting E-Verify.

E-Verify uses several federal government databases to check information on employment documents.

The program is mandatory only for federal agencies. Larger contractors that work with the federal government must use it, said Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Sharon Rummery.

The state bill was voted out of committee on Friday and it’s expected to get a floor vote in the House.