Iowa Case Spotlights Ag Labor

Illegal Immigrant Farmworker Brings Political Heat on Farm Guest-Worker Legislation

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Latino workers at a New York dairy farm in 2013. Dairy farmers have been calling for immigration reform because they need permanent labor. The murder of an Iowa college student allegedly by a worker who may have falsified work documents leads to more questions about legislation around an agricultural guest-worker program. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The fact that the suspect in the abduction and murder of an Iowa college student is an illegal immigrant accused of using falsified documents to work on a dairy farm puts an uncomfortable spotlight on farm labor and an agricultural guest-worker bill that congressmen have championed this summer.

The Yarrabee Farm dairy operation in Iowa that employed Christhian Rivera is owned and run by the Lang family. The father, Craig Lang, is a well-known Iowa farmer who was president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, a member of the Iowa Board of Regents and earlier this year lost the GOP primary for the state's secretary of agriculture position. The Langs have received death threats, and the farm's Facebook page attracted hostile comments, though the family continues to defend its workers.

"There will be plenty of time later to discuss immigration. However, now is not that time," Craig Lang was quoted as saying in the Des Moines Register from a Wednesday press conference.

Craig and his son Dane Lang told reporters Wednesday that Rivera used a different name and false identification when he started working for the farm. Contrary to earlier reports, Yarrabee Farms checked Rivera's employment status through the I-9 system and not E-Verify.

Rivera, 24, was arrested and charged for the abduction and murder of 20-year-old University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, whose disappearance last month had already drawn national attention. Police say Rivera confessed to the killing and helped lead law-enforcement investigators to Tibbetts' body in a cornfield. According to his attorney, Rivera came to the U.S. when he was 17 years old and has mostly worked on the dairy farm for the past four years.

The murder case immediately became politically charged. President Donald Trump is highlighting Tibbetts' death in his calls for tougher immigration enforcement and laws. The murder has been brought into the hotly contested North Dakota Senate race after the Grand Forks Herald editorial board called for immigration reform on Thursday. The North Dakota GOP pointed to the editorial and immediately attacked Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's stance on sanctuary cities, which Heitkamp referred to as "scare tactics." To read the full Grand Forks Herald editorial, visit…


Before details about Tibbetts' accused murderer were known, the House of Representatives was championing a potential vote in September on the "Ag and Legal Workforce Act," or HR 6417, which would replace the current H-2A agricultural seasonal guest-worker visa program with a new program that would allow agricultural guest workers to stay in the country for up to three years.

This language was specifically to help industries such as dairy farmers who need labor year-round. A similar bill had already failed a House vote earlier in the summer, but lawmakers were still trying to find the right provisions to win more support.

House members from states such as Kansas, North Carolina, Florida and Washington talked, regarding the possibility of overhauling the agricultural guest-worker program, in town-hall events earlier this month.


But farm groups were split. The American Farm Bureau, the National Milk Producers Federation and more than 200 other agricultural groups backed the bill. But the Western Growers Association, which represents major fruit and vegetable farmers in California and Arizona, opposed HR 6417, as did the California Farm Bureau Federation, specifically because the bill would require all employers to use E-Verify. Western Growers and California Farm Bureau leaders wrote a letter last month in the Fresno Bee stating the bill would harm families of farmworkers, acknowledging that many of those workers or their families are likely in the country illegally now.

"Very few are willing to voluntarily declare their unauthorized status and that of their spouses to become part of a guest-worker program that requires them to leave the country for extended periods of time, hoping new visas are granted and renewed," wrote Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, and Jamie Johansson, president of California Farm Bureau Federation. "Consequently, these farmworkers will be driven deeper into the shadows, and will ultimately become unavailable to farmers as mandatory E-Verify kicks in." To read the full letter in the Fresno Bee, visit…

DTN reached out to farm groups that support guest-worker reforms. Most did not respond. A spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation declined to comment.


While Congress is looking to overhaul H-2A, tougher immigration enforcement is causing more farm operations to turn to the program. In the third quarter of fiscal year 2018, the Department of Labor reported 81,418 foreign workers certified nationally, up 29% from the same period a year ago. If the pace holds, H-2A will fill more than 242,000 positions for 2018, compared to 200,320 for 2017, which was a record year of enrollment for the program, according to an American Farm Bureau Federation analysis earlier this summer. To read more of the AFBF analysis, visit:…

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst said Tibbetts' death and Rivera's legal status demand Congress tackle immigration reform in several ways. "No family should ever have to endure such a tragedy," Ernst said. "It is clear that the man who confessed to this crime would not have been in the country if it were not for our broken immigration system."

Ernst pointed to the need for E-Verify as a tighter system than the I-9 program because under E-Verify, if a job candidate is flagged, that would require photo identification that then can be matched with information from the federal government.

"There are some things we can do better," Ernst said. "Even with E-Verify, if you have fraudulent documents, there is still a way of working through the system."

Ernst said there have been talks about implementing biometric systems to confirm immigration status or whether a person is legally allowed to work in the country. This would require technology such as an eye scan or thumbprint. "We need to do better," she said. "We want to make sure those who have legal status are working here in the United States, as well as those who are American citizens. It seems he was able to slip through by using fraudulent and falsified documents."


Yet, the senator also acknowledged the need to streamline the legal guest-worker system because agriculture and other industries need workers. Ernst said she believed Congress could still address agriculture's labor need despite the charged political environment sparked by the abduction and murder in her home state.

"We have a lot of great folks who want to work in the United States, those who are trying to do it legally, through our guest-worker program," Ernst said. "We need to find ways to make that workable for the dairy industry. They need workers. We have other organic farms that need workers. You name it. A number of our hog-growing operations, they need workers. So, we do need to have this conversation and make sure if we are able, if we can't bring in workers from our own states, if we can't bring in workers from other states, then we need to look outside of our country for labor. And I'm OK with doing that, but it needs to be done legally."

Ernst said she intends to work with other senators on guest-worker provisions. "It is a very heated environment, but we have to figure out how to move through that and focus again on the system."

Ernst is also co-sponsor of an immigration bill that would provide $25 billion for border security and enact a tougher mandatory prison sentence for any convicted felon that is caught trying to reenter the U.S. after being deported.

Ernst also has spearheaded an effort to ensure that local authorities turn over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement any illegal immigrant arrested for a violent offense. Called, "Sarah's Law," the bill was named for another young Iowa woman, Sarah Root, who was killed by an undocumented immigrant charged with vehicular homicide, but posted bond and fled the U.S. At the time, ICE had declined to require detention of the man accused of killing Root. The House has passed "Sarah's Law," but it keeps stalling in the Senate. An executive order by President Trump put some of the bill's provisions into place.

"We do need to see some sort of reform. This is an issue I've been pushing, especially when it comes to Sarah's Law, for the past two years," Ernst noted.

Ernst later said she believed there would be a new emphasis on Sarah's Law because of the circumstances involving Tibbetts' death, but she said there is "pushback from colleagues across the aisle anytime we bring up immigration."

Yet, Ernst acknowledged Sarah's Law likely would not have prevented Tibbetts' death, and that's why a larger debate on immigration is needed. "I do think we need to talk about illegal immigration. We can't discount that at all."

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Chris Clayton