Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Q&A: UCLA's Kent Wong on Meg Whitman and the unavoidable underground economy

The scandal that has erupted around Meg Whitman’s ex-housekeeper Nicandra Diaz Santillan, who yesterday announced in a press conference with attorney Gloria Allred that she had worked illegally for Whitman for nine years, threatens to derail the GOP gubernatorial candidate’s campaign.

In a press conference this morning, Whitman referred to yesterday's allegations as a political smear, insisting that she did not know about Diaz’s undocumented status, that Diaz had “lied to us for nine years” about her status, and that she was fired upon admitting that she was in the country illegally. At issue now is an allegation that Whitman received a letter from the U.S. Social Security Administration in 2003 questioning the legitimacy of her housekeeper's status, which Whitman says she never saw.

The relationship between Whitman and Diaz is noteworthy, of course, in light of Whitman’s bid for public office, and especially in light of Whitman’s tough-on-illegal-immigration campaign stance. But outside that context, with more than 11 million undocumented immigrants believed to be living in the United States, the vast majority in the labor market, Whitman and Diaz’s business relationship was quite commonplace.

So commonplace, in fact, that public figures who have come under scrutiny for their domestic hiring practices have ranged from former U.S. attorney general candidate Zoe Baird to former Gov. Pete Wilson (and Whitman campaign manager). And those are just the public figures - what about the rest of us?

Kent Wong, director of UCLA’s Center for Labor Research and Education, explains why it’s next to impossible to steer clear of the underground economy.

M-A: Meg Whitman hired an undocumented immigrant to clean her house. She's not the first public figure known to have done so. How pervasive is the underground economy, and has it become difficult to sidestep illegal immigration as it applies to our daily lives?

Wong: The presence of 11 to 12 mission undocumented immigrants within our society means that everyone is connected in some way. For those who eats fruits and vegetables, inevitably, those plants and fruits and vegetables were picked by immigrant labor, and there is a good chance that they were undocumented immigrant workers.

If you look at who works as housekeepers, and as gardeners, and as nannies and as care providers, especially here in California, a large segment of the workforce is undocumented. This is a pervasive issue within our society.

The reason why it is particularly newsworthy when it comes to Meg Whitman is that she has been sending out mixed signals regarding her position on immigration. On one hand, she has said that she is going to be tough as nails and go after employers who hire illegal immigrants. On the other hand, she is opening up an office in East L.A., putting out Spanish-language ads, saying she is a friend of Latinos. Her position has not been clear, and it has not been consistent.

M-A: Much of the conversation has now turned to whether or not Whitman broke the law, i.e. whether she knew that Diaz was undocumented. Whitman says she didn't know, Diaz says otherwise. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) established sanctions against employers who hire illegally, but employers must knowingly hire unauthorized workers to be in violation. Even with badly forged documents, "knowingly" is hard to prove. Does this create a loophole for employers?

Wong: That is how employers avoid liability, by claiming they did not know.

Since the passage of employer sanctions, the burden is not on employers to verify the legal documents that allow people to work. The whole intent of passing employer sanctions was to stop the magnet of employers hiring undocumented immigrants. The reality is that it has failed. The underground economy has gone further underground, and employers have rarely been penalized or punished for hiring undocumented immigrants. And yes, it has really exacerbated the exploitation of immigrant workers. It (the Whitman situation)  does raise broader questions about the failure of employer sanctions and the ethical issues involved.

M-A: Is there anything Whitman could have done to avoid this blowing up the way it has?

Wong: The reason why it is such a big issue with Meg Whitman is her stand on immigration. It would be less controversial if her position was consistent, that she was pro-immigrant, that she thinks the immigration system is broken and it needs to be reformed. I don’t think it would be as big of an issue (then). The fact that she has proclaimed that she is going to be tough as nails on immigrants and punish employers who have knowingly hired undocumented issue is a major issue in terms of hypocrisy.

M-A: Whitman is not the first public figure to face scrutiny for hiring an unauthorized worker. Who else?

Wong: Pete Wilson also got into trouble, the champion of get-tough-on-immigration. During the Bill Clinton administration, there were two (U.S. Attorney General) nominees, including Zoe Baird. Now Meg Whitman is caught up in the same issue. It’s quite odd that this is now being evoked as a litmus test for whether people should be allowed to serve in elected office, when the reality is that there are millions and millions of undocumented immigrants who are part of the work force and part of the fabric of our society, and virtually everyone is touched by their presence.