Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has exactly the right sermon for California. She just has trouble practicing what she preaches.
During a Sept 28 debate with Democratic opponent Jerry Brown, Whitman was asked what she would do about illegal immigration. This is what she said:
We do have to hold employers accountable for hiring only documented workers and we do have to enforce that law. We have to stop the magnet. Most illegal immigrants, I believe, come here for the jobs. And so we have to go to the source.
That’s common sense, right? Without readily available employment, there would be no illegal immigrants. And yet, you’d be surprised how reluctant Americans are to admit that they’re as much to blame for illegal immigration as porous borders, corrupt foreign governments, unfair trade policies, or any of the other things that typically take the blame.
You will even find immigration restrictionists who argue that illegal immigration is a crisis that is damaging the country but also insist on their right to hire illegal immigrants. Not long ago, a reader wrote me to say that, while he opposed illegal immigration, he didn’t see anything wrong with hiring illegal immigrants to do odd jobs “since they’re here anyway.”
Whitman is right. We have to go after employers because we need to go the source of the problem. Only now it turns out that going to the source means going to Whitman’s house.
Nicky Diaz Santillan, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, worked for Whitman as a housekeeper and nanny for nine years before being fired 15 months ago as the former eBay CEO was preparing to launch her campaign. The maid claims the dismissal left her feeling “exploited, disrespected, humiliated.” Her lawyer, the media-hungry Gloria Allred, plans to file a claim for unpaid wages — after she’s done making a political splash.
The Whitman campaign fired back by providing the media with immigration and IRS forms that Santillan signed back in 2000 when she first applied for a job as a housekeeper stating that she was a legal resident of the United States.
But Allred produced a document of her own. Alleging that Whitman received, over several years, numerous letters from the government informing her that her maid’s Social Security number was “mismatched,” Allred provided a copy of what appears to be the first such correspondence. Scribbled on the letter is a handwritten note by Whitman’s husband, Dr. Griffith Harsh, telling Santillan to “please check this.”
We can assume that Santillan didn’t follow through on that request. Without that short note, the Whitman campaign could have continued to plausibly deny that neither the candidate nor her husband were aware of Santillan’s legal status until the housekeeper informed them herself last year. Now the best the campaign can do is to claim that, while Harsh may have known that something was amiss with Santillan’s paperwork, Whitman was in the dark. That might be hard for voters to swallow.
Then there is the obvious hypocrisy. People who hire illegal immigrants shouldn’t go around threatening to punish those who hire illegal immigrants. And those who know firsthand how confusing and unworkable the current immigration system is shouldn’t retreat to the world of sound bites and pretend that the solutions are simple.
The conventional thinking among California political experts is that, while this scandal might cost Whitman a few points with Latino voters who find themselves sympathetic to Santillan, the overall damage to her candidacy will be minimal. Most people, they say, just don’t care about things like this.
The experts are wrong. This embarrassing episode could well be the beginning of the end for the Whitman campaign. The problem isn’t that she hired an illegal immigrant; it’s a good bet that 9 out of 10 Californians have done that. If that was the extent of the scandal, she could easily weather it. What has really damaged Whitman’s candidacy is how she has handled the story and what it says about her veracity.
California voters may decide that, if she can’t be trusted to tell the truth about something as simple as what she knew about the legal status of her housekeeper and when she knew it, she can’t be trusted to level with them about much more important matters. That could cost her support from voters across the board.
At least now we know why Meg Whitman needs a good housekeeper. In no time at all, she sure knows how to make a mess.