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Journalist’s Story Highlights Patchwork of Immigration Laws

A closer look at one undocumented immigrant's path through the nation's immigration system highlights a hodgepodge of state immigration laws.

In a first-person story in the New York Times Magazine this week, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas confessed his status as an undocumented immigrant, bringing renewed attention to the ever-simmering, never-solved issue of immigration reform. The account is garnering plenty of attention—and scrutiny—for Vargas.

But less noticed amid the chatter is how the piece highlights the United States' hodgepodge of immigration laws. 

For instance, Vargas named a number of close mentors who helped him in matters related to his legal status. Under recent immigration laws passed in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama, the provision of such help—specifically, harboring or shielding undocumented immigrants—has been criminalized. (Key parts of Arizona’s law were blocked by a federal judge, though this particular section wasn’t one of them.)

A number of states also recently passed laws expanding the use of E-Verify—a mostly voluntary Homeland Security program that lets companies check the eligibility of prospective employees.

In his account, Vargas writes that he had concerns about being identified through E-Verify, but that he always managed to land on payroll anyway. It’s unclear whether any of his employers ever ran him through the system, but it’s also not guaranteed that he would have been detected if they had.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the program “accurately detects the status of unauthorized workers almost half of the time.” Immigration advocates have opposed the use of E-Verify, arguing that it’s ineffective at identifying undocumented workers and that mistakes could cause U.S. citizens and legal workers to be denied employment.

Most states don’t require employers use E-Verify. But a number of states have made checks mandatory—sometimes with surprising results.

Georgia’s recently passed law requiring businesses to run employees through E-Verify hasn’t even gone into effect yet, but has already left the state’s agricultural industry in a lurch—with a sudden shortage of workers and millions of dollars’ worth of rotting crops. Here’s what AFP reported today:

But as the full cost of the immigration reform emerges in the form of an estimated millions of dollars worth of crops rotting in fields, it could alarm other states that have passed or are considering similar strict measures.

Georgia labor officials estimate a shortage of some 11,000 workers in the agriculture sector, and the state has enacted a program where people on probation, who often have difficulty finding jobs, are sent into the fields.

Whatever the problems with the program, more states are signing on. South Carolina’s governor is on the verge of signing a bill that requires businesses to run employees through E-Verify and penalizes them for knowingly employing undocumented workers. Arizona’s law requiring E-Verify was upheld by the Supreme Court last month. North Carolina has an E-Verify bill in the works that exempts agriculture companies.

The immigration bill-writing bonanza by the states could still run into trouble in federal courts. Judges in Indiana and Georgia still have to rule on whether those states’ new immigration laws can take effect next month.

Another federal judge in Utah has to decide whether a law passed last month in Utah—which was temporarily blocked because of its resemblance to Arizona’s—should be permanently blocked.

President Obama has said that immigration system needs reform but that he won’t accept “a patchwork of 50 states” acting on their own to address the issue. As we noted last year, the Obama administration has deported illegal immigrants in record numbers even while immigration courts across the country—which face record backlogs—have been dismissing more deportation cases.

Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton released a memo authorizing the agency to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” [PDF] in the enforcement of immigration laws and prioritize the types of individuals it should take action against. “The agency is confronted with more administrative violations than its resources can address,” Morton wrote.

According to the memo, ICE officers, agents, and attorneys should consider an individual’s manner of entry and age of entry, pursuit of education, military service, criminal history, family relationships and other factors when making enforcement decisions.

At the moment, it’s unclear what authorities will do about Vargas, a prominent figure whose admission that he violated the laws of a broken immigration system will no doubt provoke strong feelings on both sides of the debate. Since giving his account, Vargas has publicly pushed for passage of the federal DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who seek to go to college or serve in the military, or who had been brought to the United States at a young age. His attorneys have said that he knows “there are no guarantees about what comes next.”

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