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COLUMN ONE : Domestics: Hiring the Illegal Hits Home : The thriving market for low-cost child care and menial help shows how ignoring immigration law has entrenched itself in California life.


It doesn't matter that Margarita is an illegal immigrant, speaks no English and has neither a driver's license nor a car. In Los Angeles, she has no problem finding work, even with the bad economy.

She is one of the army of undocumented domestics in California, doing such essential tasks as caring for children, cooking and cleaning. Willing to work more than 50 hours a week for about $130, she has found parents eager to hire her, regardless of her status.

And even though Margarita says she misses her children and grandchildren back in Mexicali, she stays here because "they all depend on me" to send money.

Margarita's story reflects the economic forces that have converged to make domestic work a magnet for undocumented immigrant women in California. It also tells why, experts say, these women will continue to do these jobs even if voters approve Proposition 187, a measure intended to crack down on illegal immigrants by denying them public services.

Domestic work is just one of several fields employing thousands of undocumented workers in California.

But nothing rivals domestic jobs in showing how the personal lives of U.S. citizens have become intertwined with, and often dependent on, people employed here illegally. As such, it reflects the clash between the gut feelings many voters have about illegal immigration and what is being practiced in thousands of California homes.

That conflict made headlines this week when Senate candidate Mike Huffington, a strong supporter of Proposition 187, acknowledged that for five years he employed a woman living in this country illegally to care for his children.

Likewise, for all of the anger reflected in opinion polls about illegal immigration, American families still want illegal nannies and housekeepers who will work hard for long hours and meager pay--often for less than the minimum wage. It is one of the stubborn contradictions of the immigration debate sweeping the state.

"It's hard to believe people will give up their domestics no matter what law they pass," said Julia Wrigley, a sociologist who has studied domestics and their employers. In Southern California, she said, "there are lifestyles . . . that depend on there being cheap labor available."

"I realize it's not legal or the all-American thing to do," said a Woodland Hills woman who employs an illegal immigrant from Mexico to watch her two young sons at home. But, she said, given the lack of child care options and the fact that she and her husband work outside the home, "What's our alternative?"

That is an argument made by many families, particularly those with modest incomes or headed by a single parent.

There also is a mean edge behind some of the hiring. Operators of employment agencies that place domestics say there is no shortage of legal residents willing to do the work; but these workers normally won't put in difficult 12-hour days for less than they could earn at a fast-food restaurant. Rather than accept that fact and pay more, many families--even in wealthy neighborhoods--offer wages that only illegal immigrants will accept.

Eva Meszaros, owner of Eva's Domestic Agency in Van Nuys, said her firm routinely turns down requests from would-be customers who demand: "Give me one of your starving girls who are willing to work for $100 a week."

The undocumented domestics, for their part, often have few job skills or prospects in their native countries.

"If you compare the opportunities in the United States and the opportunities in their home countries, the U.S. is still going to be a better deal," even if Proposition 187 passes, said Deborah Cobb-Clark, an Illinois State University economist who has studied employment of Latina immigrants.

The statistics on illegal domestics, a diverse group including Salvadoran housecleaners and English nannies, are imprecise. As with other figures on undocumented immigrants, experts say, they should be used cautiously. But a 1989 survey of illegal immigrants who applied for legal residency under an amnesty program provides a sense of the numbers.

Based on the survey, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated that more than 41,000 illegal immigrants in California who applied for amnesty were working as private household employees in the late 1980s. That sum was almost half of all undocumented domestics in the contiguous 48 states. It also suggests that of the 133,576 domestics counted in California in the 1990 census, nearly one in three was illegal.

Further estimates show that the overwhelming majority of the undocumented domestics came from three countries: Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Although the amnesty program legalized many workers, the ranks of illegal domestics have been replenished. For newly arrived undocumented women, experts say, domestic work is the leading type of employment.

In the most-demanding domestic jobs--such as round-the-clock assistance to the disabled and the elderly--undocumented workers are particularly prevalent.

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