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Agricultural businesses would have three years to start screening all new hires with mandatory E-verify checks to assure that their workforce is legal, according to a bill introduced June 14 by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX).

"E-Verify is a successful program to help ensure that jobs are reserved for citizens and legal workers," said Rep. Smith, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and who held a June 15 hearing on his legislation, the Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 2164).

E-Verify is an Internet-based system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees by checking Social Security numbers and alien identification numbers against Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security databases. States have adopted similar programs, and federal legislation is likely to garner much support on Capitol Hill.

"Industry should be nervous" about the legislation because it would eliminate unauthorized workers, Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy at United Fresh Produce Association, told The Produce News. E-Verify legislation “will be a hard train to stop."

Businesses would have two years to comply with mandatory E-Verify immigration checks under the new legislation, but it treats agricultural workers and employers differently by providing an extra year to comply and exempting farmworkers from verification if they had worked for an employer in the past.

United Fresh plans this summer to push House of Representatives members to attach language to the bill that would make necessary reforms to the H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers, said Mr. Guenther. The bill needs to take into account the long-term needs of production agriculture, he added.

The issue is likely to spark discussion among the industry as E-Verify legislation will be the topic of the trade association's June 29 webinar, the first in a four-part summer policy series leading up to United’s 2011 Washington Public Policy Conference.