Iowa slaying focuses attention on immigrants in agriculture
DES MOINES, Iowa вЂ” The arrest of a Mexican farmworker in the death of an Iowa college student renewed calls to change immigration laws, but it also focused attention on the immigrant workers whose labour is essential to the stateвЂ™s agricultural industry.
Hours after authorities found the body of Mollie Tibbetts and charged the suspect with murder, politicians including President Donald Trump, the Iowa governor and two senators expressed outrage that Cristhian Bahena Rivera had been able to live illegally in the U.S. for years. They urged a wider crackdown on illegal immigration.
The response from farming groups was more muted, reflecting the difficulty in hiring people for the physically demanding work at dairies, slaughterhouses and other agricultural operations.
The day after RiveraвЂ™s arrest, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley acknowledged that some of the most intense opposition has come from his own stateвЂ™s agriculture industry because of its need for workers.
вЂњWeвЂ™re the No. 1 egg-producing state, and I canвЂ™t talk to the egg producers without this being a problem,вЂќ said Grassley, a Republican. вЂњWith big dairy farms вЂ” and theyвЂ™re getting bigger all the time in Iowa вЂ” but even in smaller dairy farms, you hear it. You hear it in the industrial hog production that we have, and then you also hear it from the processing of our agricultural products.вЂќ
Fellow Republican Sen. Joni Ernst noted, вЂњA lot of our agricultural industry does rely on many labourers, and we just donвЂ™t have enough of that labour pool in the state of Iowa.вЂќ
According to the Labor DepartmentвЂ™s most recent National Agriculture Workers Survey, about 47 per cent of hired crop farm workers in the U.S. lack proper authorization to work here. The most recent data available was released in December 2016 based on surveys from 2013 to 2014. The survey showed that 68 per cent of hired farmer workers were born in Mexico.
A spokeswoman for the Iowa Farm Bureau declined to comment, but the American Farm Bureau Federation said that it would support a mandatory electronic employee verification system only if the federal government also created an agriculture worker program, protected employers who may have inadvertently hired workers not in the country legally and allowed workers already hired to remain on the job under a new program.
In response to TrumpвЂ™s criticism of existing immigration laws, Craig Lang, a former farm bureau president whose dairy employed Rivera, said laws need to be changed to identify and track immigrant workers while also providing essential labour.
вЂњThat is the kind of immigration we need not only for agriculture but for many other industries,вЂќ said Lang, who is the Republican candidate for Iowa agriculture secretary.
LangвЂ™s family said Wednesday that Rivera had provided false documents with a different identity when he was hired four years ago and that he had been a good employee.
The Iowa State Dairy Association took a similar stand, calling for a more effective way to verify that potential workers can legally be hired.
вЂњIn todayвЂ™s tight economy, labour is scarce, and finding employees for open positions can be difficult,вЂќ the association said in a statement. вЂњLegal immigrants fill a wide variety of jobs and often provide relief needed for employers.вЂќ
State Sen. David Johnson, who worked on an Iowa dairy farm for 20 years, said IowaвЂ™s dairy and meatpacking industries could not survive without immigrant labour. He said improvements must be made in worker vetting to ensure that documents and identities are not faked or stolen.
вЂњItвЂ™s got to be a comprehensive approach that takes as much of these things in as possible,вЂќ he said. вЂњSet something up so everybody understands what the rules are because we have to maintain ourselves as a nation of laws.вЂќ
He said heвЂ™s known many hardworking Hispanic employees at dairies seeking only a better life for their families.
In Brooklyn, Iowa, where Tibbetts was last seen, residents seemed more focused on the loss of a beloved young woman who had grown up in the town of 1,500 than the citizenship of the man arrested in her death.
Brad Hohensee, school superintendent in the Brooklyn area, said the districtвЂ™s message to students is that the alleged kidnapping and murder of Tibbetts has nothing to do with вЂњrace or colour.вЂќ
вЂњWe are staying positive here and focusing on Mollie,вЂќ Hohensee said. вЂњLetвЂ™s focus on what Mollie did for our school and community. She was very positive and we are staying positive.вЂќ
TibbettsвЂ™ aunt took a similar approach, writing on her Facebook page: вЂњEvil comes in EVERY colour. Our family has been blessed to be surrounded by love, friendship and support throughout this entire ordeal by friends from all different nations and races.вЂќ
Rusty Clayton, a City Council member and owner of the True Value hardware store in Brooklyn, Iowa, said TibbettsвЂ™ death вЂњjust put a big hole in everybodyвЂ™s heart.вЂќ
Clayton hopes his townвЂ™s tragedy will lead to changes that could enable employers to hire immigrant workers while also ensuring public safety.
вЂњWeвЂ™ve got trouble in the system somewhere,вЂќ Clayton said. вЂњWe just have to decide how weвЂ™re going to handle it all. Not as a community. The country has to decide. How do we handle this stuff? It canвЂ™t keep going on.вЂќ
Associated Press writer Ryan J. Foley also contributed from Brooklyn, Iowa.