(UPDATED COVERAGE, 2:35 p.m., July 10) In a move hailed by produce industry groups, the Department of Homeland Security is dropping the no-match rule, which would have made employers liable for hiring workers whose Social Security Numbers are suspect.
Department Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the decision July 8 as senators considered the Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010.
A day later, however, senators in a voice vote approved an amendment that reinstates the rule. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., introduced the amendment.
Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said he thought that, because the amendment was passed on a voice vote, ways remain for Homeland Security to work around rule and rescind it.
"It's only an amendment to a bill that's still in progress," Gasperini said. "It'll have to pass both houses. And then, there can still be conference in committee to reconcile both versions."
The Bush administration approved the no-match rule in August 2007, but it was never implemented, and a coalition of business and labor groups successfully sued for a court injunction. The regulation said any employer that didn't follow guidelines would be susceptible to an I-9 violation and possible fines in the event of a workplace raid or audit.
The Department of Homeland Security is backing the E-Verify system, in which employers must use the Internet to check on Social Security numbers of employees to see if they're documented. Mandatory E-Verify regulations are planned to go into effect Sept. 8, awarding government contracts only to companies who have used the system.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has introduced an amendment that would allow employers who use E-Verify to verify all existing employees, not just new hires, another move opposed by the agriculture industry.
In a release issued by Homeland Security, Napolitano said E-Verify was the smart, simple and effective way to go in documenting immigrant laborers.
"Requiring those who seek federal contracts to use this system will create a more reliable and legal work force," Napolitano said in the release.
"Right now, the E-Verify requirement is only going to extend to federal contractors and sub-contractors," said Jasper Hempel, executive vice president of Western Growers, Irvine, Calif. "We have produce companies in our association that sell to the federal government, but my guess is that will be a very small group."
Hempel said he hopes comprehensive immigration reform becomes reality this year.
"It's not on (Congress') short-term agenda, but I hope in the fall it will get to them," he said. "Getting AgJobs passed, or AgJobs rolled into comprehensive immigration reform … that will go a huge way in solving our labor issues."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said July 8 he believes an immigration bill can be done by Labor Day, Sept. 7. He told The Associated Press that the way to get a bill through was to be more generous to highly skilled immigrant workers but very tough on future waves of illegal immigration.