Sept. 29, 2010: Nicky Diaz, former housekeeper for California GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, listens as attorney Gloria Allred talks to reporters in Los Angeles.
The issue of illegal immigration is a hot-button topic. But I'm not sure that's the real import of the story about how Meg Whitman's housekeeper was let go when she revealed she was undocumented.
I covered yesterday's press conference at which the housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, spoke -- but did not take questions -- about her nine years working for Whitman, from 2000 to 2009. Much of the focus during the event -- and in the analysis since -- has been on whether Whitman was on the right side of the law during her employment. Whitman says she didn't know her housekeeper was undocumented until Diaz Santillan told her in June 2009. The housekeeper said Whitman should have known or at least suspected earlier.
We're unlikely to get a clear answer to this controversy, and I'm not sure if the answer matters, at least politically.
Yes, if Whitman knowingly employed an undocumented immigrant, her campaign statements about the need to crack down on those who employ such immigrants would make her a hypocrite.
But would that hurt her politically? This is California, a state of 38 million people, an estimated three million of whom are here illegally. These undocumented immigrants work in our homes, our offices, and our schools. They are our neighbors, co-workers, friends and family members. Millions of Californians have employed, knowingly or unknowingly, undocumented immigrants.
So put it this way: If Meg Whitman were to get the vote of each Californian who might be accused of hypocrisy on immigration, she would win the election in a record landslide.
No, the real danger is not that Whitman employed such a person, perhaps knowingly. The real political danger come from Diaz's accusations about how Whitman treated her.
Specifically, Diaz Santillan alleged that Whitman didn't pay her for all the work she did. The housekeeper made $23 per hour for 15 hours of work, but said she did much more work. Whitman also didn't cover her car costs, never gave her a raise, and denied her a leave she requested during a 2005 pregnancy, Diaz Santillan claimed.
And Whitman's decision to fire Diaz Santillan in 2009 after she revealed her immigration status (as part of a request for help in legalizing her status) may have been sound legally and politically, but it was questionable on moral and human grounds. It's common for employers of all kinds to help trusted employees -- and Whitman says Diaz did a good job and is considered a family friend -- who are seeking to legalize their status.
One of the weird things about the press conference, and a sign that those who organized it are politically motivated: Diaz Santillan's attorney Gloria Allred accused Whitman both of illegally employing an undocumented immigrant and also of being callous in firing that immigrant when she revealed her status. It would have been wiser to pick one line of attack instead of two conflicting attacks. My view: The human transgression of the firing is far worse than any possible legal transgression in the employment.
If Diaz Santillan is telling the truth about how she was treated and paid (Whitman has denied the allegations, and Diaz Santillan offered no proof yesterday), Whitman could suffer politically, and not just with Latinos. Fair-minded Californians wouldn't treat employees like that, no matter their legal status. The picture of a billionaire stiffing a housekeeper, whatever the legal circumstances, would not be a pretty one.