A National Issue Plays Out in Marin

does it surprise you that nearly half of Marin is farm- or ranchland? Or that agriculture is a leading contributor to the county’s economic health? In fact, the value of Marin’s agricultural production in 2010 was worth more than $56 million, according to Stacy Carlson, the county’s agricultural commissioner.

What I’m sure is not surprising is that Latinos do much of the grueling work that creates Marin’s agricultural products. Hispanics also fill many of the jobs in local restaurants and hotels, the healthcare and homecare industries and, of course, work as day laborers doing construction, home repairs and yard maintenance.

Based on the 2010 census, 16 percent of Marin’s 252,000 residents are Hispanic, about 40,000 people. How many of those individuals are citizens or legal residents — and how many are undocumented immigrants — I have no idea. Truthfully, I don’t much care.

However, there are many in Marin, California and throughout the United States who do care — and do so very strongly. They support a movement to require employers to verify citizenship before hiring anyone. The process is called E-Verify and involves a free website — operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — that compares job applications with existing government records to determine the applicant’s citizenship status.

In Marin, attorney Jerome Ghigliotti requested that the Novato City Council require all city contractors to determine their employees’ citizenship status via E-Verify. The council refused, and he gathered enough signatures to place the matter on a citywide ballot — and again the council balked, claiming such an ordinance would be unconstitutional. (Efforts to reach Ghigliotti for comment were unsuccessful.) Currently, the dispute is working its way through Marin Superior Court.

Taking the opposite position is Dr. William Rothman of Belvedere, a self-described “doubter of accepted docrine” who challenges the Novato attorney when and wherever he surfaces to advance his agenda. “People like Mr. Ghigliotti don’t realize illegal immigration isn’t the problem,” says Rothman. “It is one symptom of a far greater problem.”

What the retired Belvedere physician is referring to are the massive subsidies given to America’s farmers. “For instance, our taxpayer-supported corn subsidies, running to almost $3 billion annually, have allowed U.S. farmers to sell at prices below what it costs to grow corn,” says Rothman. “As a result, 90 percent of the corn consumed in Mexico is grown in the U.S.; corn farming in Mexico has been decimated.” This and similar U.S. subsidies, he contends, are one reason so many Latinos illegally enter the United States. “Their jobs have simply disappeared.”

“Subsidies were created during the Depression and Dust Bowl eras to stabilize farming in America,” Rothman says. “Then NAFTA’s trade liberalization caused corn prices to fall, and without subsidies farmers south of our border can’t compete.” He sees America’s taxpayers as both creating the problem (by supporting subsidies) and seeking ways to contain it (through programs such as E-Verify).

Regardless, some 15 states — Idaho, Utah and Arizona among them — now require employers to utilize E-Verify with a variety of penalties for failure to do so. Making matters worse, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Arizona’s E-Verify law has encouraged various anti-immigrant groups to seek a national E-Verify law. “Arizona’s E-Verify Victory Adds Pressure for House to Pass National Mandate This Summer; Senate in the Fall,” reads a recent headline on NumbersUSA, a Tea Party–affiliated website.

Conversely, a recent Associated Press article in the Marin Independent Journal discussed the ramifications of such federal legislation. It’s headline: “Ag Industry Fears E-Verify Disaster.” My thought? If America, teetering on the brink of insolvency, wants to commit economic suicide, requiring E-Verify is the way to do it. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

Email [email protected].