Will Rep. Issa Save Big Business From Fellow Republican's Job-Killing E-Verify Bill?

August 02, 2011 1:46 pm ET — Brian Powell

Rep. Lamar Smith

Since becoming the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has used the powerful position to push an anti-immigration agenda that plays well with Republicans in his home district around San Antonio. At the top of his list is a bill that would impose a mandatory E-Verify system on private employers, requiring them to confirm the citizenship status of their workforce and preventing undocumented immigrants from getting jobs.

Like many of today's Republicans, Smith is no stranger to anti-regulatory rhetoric. E-Verify, however, would be a substantial expansion of government power that will undoubtedly add to the costs of doing business. The agriculture industry, hugely reliant on immigrant labor, is terrified of the crippling devastation they say Smith's E-Verify scheme would exact on them.

Luckily for Big Agriculture, they have a hero in Congress who defends the little guys like them from expansions of government bureaucracy. That knight-in-shining-armor is Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the wealthiest member of Congress and a stalwart champion of corporate interests. Issa has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with favored private donors against the advances of Democrats and government agencies, who have supposedly sought to impose job-killing regulations on oil companies and the financial industry while forcing the unionization of the American labor force. His defense of campaign contributors above all others has been unwavering.

But on E-Verify, Issa finds himself in the crossfire between Chairman Smith and some of his favorite donors.

Farmers across the country strongly oppose Smith's E-Verify initiative, which they say would "imperil" future harvests as well as their support for conservative candidates. The president of the Western Growers Association, Tom Nassif, is a close personal friend and a major donor to Issa. DairyBusiness.com reported that Nassif has vocalized significant concerns about Smith's legislation:

Tom Nassif, president & CEO, Western Growers Association, Irvine, Calif. said agriculture is not opposed to a secure border, workplace enforcement, employer sanctions or E-Verify. However, if those programs are in place, programs are needed to hire foreign workers other than through the U.S. Department of Labor's H-2A program, presently the only legal means  to bring in foreign workers. Nassif said H-2A has been broken for many years and cannot be fixed. 

"We need a program to deal with people who are illegally here, who are presently working in our fields," he said. "We have been working for years to get Congress to pass a program, and we haven't been able to get partisan politics out of the equation. We need the government to give us the legal means of having a stable workforce to work for us to grow, harvest and pack our crops." 

Nassif said consequences of E-Verify without an accompanying labor supply program would decimate the produce industry in the U.S., as well as negatively impact national security, health interests and related jobs filled by U.S. workers.

Issa has been largely absent on the issue so far. He took no role in the Judiciary Committee hearing on E-Verify in February. In April, Issa's Oversight Committee held a field hearing during which his witnesses complained profusely about the imposition of a mandatory E-Verify system. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported on April 26 (from Nexis):

[M]any speculate the program — if implemented without Congress taking up the politically sensitive task of providing a path to citizenship for immigrant workers — would effectively wipe out the county's, the state's and the nation's agricultural workforce.

"To say that we're going to use e-Verify without giving you a legal means to citizenship, the message there is, We want consumers to buy foreign food,'" said Thomas Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Irvine-based Western Growers, adding that U.S. agriculture "couldn't survive."

United Farm Workers spokeswoman Maria Machuca shares a similar assessment.

"If you deport all those farmworkers, it's basically the collapse of the agricultural industry," she said.

During a hearing of the House Government Oversight Committee held last week in Salinas, growers aired long-standing complaints about burdensome regulations to Rep. Darrell Issa, a Vista Republican who chairs the committee, and Rep. Sam Farr, a Carmel Democrat. The meeting included several local agricultural groups, who also voiced concern about e-Verify.

"It's just going to cause some problems," said Carolyn O'Donnell, a spokeswoman for the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission.

Now that Issa's corporate masters are clamoring against Smith's new rules and regulations, it will be interesting to see whether Issa comes to the rescue to fight against a fellow Republican or whether his "principled" anti-regulatory stances are superseded by partisan politics.