The systems offered by the U.S. government to check the legal status of workers like the Mexican man now suspected of killing an Iowa college student can be easily exploited through identity fraud and gaps in government systems, experts say.
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In the case of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the 24-year-old now charged with murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts, Rivera's ex-employer said Wednesday he provided an out-of-state ID card and Social Security number. He worked at Yarrabee Farms for almost four years under a false name, said Dane Lang, part of the family that owns the dairy.
Yarrabee Farms did not use the federal E-Verify program, Lang said Wednesday, correcting information he had given a day earlier. Instead, the company used the Social Security Administration's verification service. The family is now looking into adopting E-Verify, he said.
Both E-Verify and the Social Security Administration's program, immigration experts say, can be beaten with a state ID and a Social Security number belonging to someone else.
There is a thriving black market for forged or stolen identity documents. And while employers are supposed to check those documents, they are barred by federal law from refusing to accept an ID card that meets legal requirements for employment. They are required to reject documents that do not "reasonably appear to be genuine," but those can be hard to catch.
E-Verify provides employers with photos for passports and other federal documents that they can compare with what an employee has given them, but not state-issued driver's licenses or IDs. An employer in Iowa presented with an unfamiliar out-of-state driver's license may not be able to spot a fake.
"There is rampant fraud," said Bill Riley, a former U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who is now a senior managing director at the consulting firm Guidepost Solutions. "Even experts like myself, we can say with fairly reasonable certainty — but not 100 percent — whether a document is fake or not."
Authorities say Rivera is in the U.S. illegally. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said that it had no record of Rivera having "any lawful immigration status." Rivera's attorney, Allan M. Richards, said Wednesday that his client "has the legal documents" to work in the United States.
E-Verify has been offered by both Republicans and Democrats as a solution to curbing illegal immigration. More recently, President Donald Trump has proposed making it mandatory for employers nationwide to check hires in the system.
All federal contractors are currently required to use E-Verify, and 21 states have passed laws requiring some or all employers to use it, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Iowa has not.
RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports restrictive immigration measures, said that no program is fool-proof "when there are people willing to break the law," but that E-Verify had helped many employers catch unauthorized workers and could have helped Yarrabee Farms.
"Yarrabee Farms owes the Tibbetts family an explanation of why it did not use E-Verify," he said in an email.
Dane Lang and his father, Craig, a prominent Republican Party donor and former candidate for office, said they were cooperating with authorities and reviewing their own practices.
"There will be plenty of time to discuss immigration," Craig Lang said. "However, now is not the time. Now is a time to grieve and remember Mollie and her family."
Merchant reported from Houston.