A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Congressional Hearing

To the average citizen, a Congressional field hearing can seem like a direct expression of democracy. The truth is they are highly choregraphed affairs with hand-selected witnesses carefully vetted by legislative staff to support the partisan-leanings of the committee.

On Friday, the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing in Loveland on immigration employment verification and worksite enforcment to promote HR 4437, a bill that “failed to provide meaningful long-term access to a legal labor force” according to business leaders.

While Fourth Congressional District Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (CO-R) referred to the subject as “dare I say boring” and expected the usual rubber stamp testimony, one witness had a very different take. And he was willing to tell the emperor that (s)he had no clothes. Gene Pielin testified at the hearing as a representative of the Colorado Nursery and Greenhouse Association. He is also the mayor pro-tem of the City of Loveland and a Ward 2 councillor.

Pielin strongly criticized the core of the Musgrave-backed immigration bill.  The current system called Basic Pilot is an optional employment eligibility verification system which accesses Department of Homeland Security and Social Security databases to verify legal worker status. HR 4437 would mandate that all U.S. employers use the system for all American citizens and foreign-born workers seeking jobs initially upon application and later retroactively on all workers.

Pielin referred frequently to the June 2006 testimony of Angelo Amador, Director of Immigration Policy for the U.S Chamber of Commerce, to the House Subcomittee on Workforce, Empowerment, and Government Programs. Amador pointed to an independent Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) study that found the government databases used to verify legal work status have high error rates. Overall, 20 percent of workers are incorrectly rejected as unauthorized to work. The false-negative rate for foreign-born and/or naturalized American citizens range between 35-50 percent.

Correcting errors, which can take up to two weeks, falls on the employer and employee to prove that the government information is wrong. The same study also reported that four times out of 10 the INS and Social Security Administration never or only sometimes returned phone calls by employers appealing wrongful determinations.

For nursery and garden center employers, like Pielin, who work in a brief seasonal employment sector – which he described as typically lasting just 12 weeks – he can’t afford delays in confirming employment status. Pielin explained that he has not opted to use the Basic Pilot program and will continue to rely on applicants completing federal form I-9 to  affirm their citizenship. He, like the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce, opposes the mandatory House bill expansion of Basic Pilot to all employers because of a lack of confidence in the system due to well-known verification errors.