Mollie Tibbetts

Mollie Tibbetts

LINCOLN — Could a government computer system have saved Mollie Tibbetts, the college student whose body was found Tuesday in an Iowa cornfield?

Some Nebraska and Iowa lawmakers believe it might have.

The federal system, called E-Verify, allows employers to check whether new hires have authorization to work in the United States. The voluntary system was created to discourage illegal immigration by denying jobs to people without such authorization.

“People wouldn’t come if they weren’t able to be hired,” said Iowa State Sen. Julian Garrett, a Republican from Indianola.

They argue the system could have flagged Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the Mexican national who was charged last week in the killing of Tibbetts while she was out for an evening run near Brooklyn, Iowa.

Rivera had worked at a local dairy farm for about four years, although authorities have said he was in the country illegally.

But most experts warn that E-Verify doesn’t always work as intended, even in states that require all employers to use it. They said it’s unclear whether the system would have detected Rivera’s status.

It’s also unclear whether the system would have picked up on the workers detained earlier this month during immigration raids in and around O’Neill, Nebraska. In that operation, authorities arrested people who allegedly were providing the foreign workers with fake names and Social Security numbers.

“The secret is you have to put in the correct information to get an answer,” said Nebraska State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon. “I don’t think it’s a fool-proof system, but right now it’s about all we have.”

E-Verify is an electronic system through which employers can check documents provided by newly hired employees against federal databases, including Social Security and immigration records. The system flags cases where the documents don’t match the databases.

It can’t catch employees who provide documents that are borrowed, bought or stolen.

As one Nebraska employer put it, the system can be beaten if the name, birthdate and Social Security numbers on the documents match and they all fit someone authorized to work in the United States.

A 2009 evaluation done for the Department of Homeland Security by Westat of Rockville, Maryland, estimated that E-Verify picks up only about 46 percent of unauthorized workers.

“The E-Verify program should decrease the ease with which noncitizens without work authorization can obtain employment but cannot totally eliminate the employment of such workers,” the evaluation concluded.

Iowa’s Yarrabee Farms, where Rivera worked, had not been using E-Verify when he was hired. However, Dane Lang, co-owner and manager of the family dairy, said the business had “complied with the full extent of the law.”

Federal law requires employers to verify that their workers are eligible to work in the U.S.

But using E-Verify for that purpose is voluntary in most states, including Iowa. Nebraska requires it only for public employers and businesses that contract with state government. About 5,300 Nebraska employers have enrolled with the system, out of more than 74,000 employers.

Lang said Rivera provided what appeared to be proper documents when he was hired. Those included a state-issued identification card and a Social Security card. The documents were used to fill out an I-9 form, which employers must complete for all new hires to show identity and work authorization.

Yarrabee Farms also checked the name, date of birth and Social Security number from the documents against the Social Security number verification system, Lang said.

It was only after Rivera’s arrest that they learned he had not been hired under his real name.

“Our employee was not who he said he was,” Lang said.

Despite the limitations of E-Verify, Tibbetts’ death has increased calls to require the system’s use.

Brewer said he plans to reintroduce legislation to expand Nebraska’s mandate, while Garrett, in the Iowa Senate, and GOP Rep. Steven Holt of Denison, Iowa, both said they plan to push for E-Verify mandates in that state next year.

None of the three has settled on the exact form of his proposal. Brewer in 2017 and Garrett this year had bills that would have mandated E-Verify for employers with 25 or more workers.

The experience of states with broader mandates has been mixed, however.

A Stateline analysis this year found wide variance in actual use of the system. While nine states mandate near-universal use of E-Verify, employers in only five of those states screened half or more of new hires in the 12 months ended July 2017.

Nebraska employers checked 46 percent of new hires, while Iowa employers checked 20 percent. The analysis found that use was higher in states with large poultry industries.

Meanwhile, a report done for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas concluded that E-Verify mandates did not necessarily affect the number of unauthorized workers or residents in a state.

Mandates kept the number of unauthorized workers and residents lower than would have been expected in Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi and Utah. In Georgia, the mandate curbed the number of unauthorized workers but not the number of residents. Mandates had no effect on either group in North and South Carolina.

Holt said problems with the current system point to the need for federal action on immigration reform.

“The ultimate answer to all of this is in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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