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Missing the Whitman story

The media are ignoring the deeper issues in the gubernatorial candidate's alleged treatment of a former housekeeper.

October 02, 2010|Tim Rutten

If you're following the gubernatorial campaign, you've heard little else over the past few days but the back and forth between Republican candidate Meg Whitman and her former housekeeper, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, an undocumented immigrant.

Calbuzz, a smart and irreverent website devoted to California politics, caught the essence of the coverage: "The latest dramatic chapter of the governor's race … finds the campaign of one of the richest women in California threatened by the comments of one of the poorest. Finally, a political story TV can understand."

Actually, a political story that much of the media — which has yawned and rolled their eyes through most of this campaign — can enthusiastically misunderstand might be closer to the mark. There's nothing particularly remarkable about the fact that the billionaire former EBay chief executive and her neurosurgeon husband employed an undocumented immigrant. At some point, most Californians knowingly or unknowingly employ a worker without papers or do business with someone who does. Merely going out to dinner, having your car washed or hiring a contractor to work on your house makes that so.

What really ought to concern people most are Diaz Santillan's allegations that during the nine years she worked for Whitman and her husband, they repeatedly forced her to put in more than her agreed-upon hours without compensation and refused to pay her mileage even though she had to use her own car to perform household errands. Whitman denies all this, but she does agree that she fired Diaz Santillan within days of the June 2009 conversation in which the housekeeper asked for help in legalizing her status. That may not be labor code-style mistreatment, but it's an odd way to treat somebody who'd worked in your home and taken care of your children for nearly a decade and who Whitman herself describes as "a member of our extended family." Lots of tough love, one surmises, in that house.

Diaz Santillan alleges that Whitman fired her in a phone call, saying: "From now on you don't know me, and I don't know you. You never have seen me and I have never seen you. Do you understand me?" With that, according to Diaz Santillan, Whitman hung up.

"She was," Diaz Santillan said, "throwing me away like a piece of garbage."

The facts of Whitman's relationship with Diaz Santillan remain to be sorted out, but we already know for certain that undocumented workers are treated like garbage — exploited as if they weren't human beings. They're forced into the shadows; darkness makes them vulnerable to every form of mistreatment.

The night the Whitman story broke this week, Cardinal Roger Mahony delivered a soberly compelling lecture at USC's Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. His topic was the pressing need for comprehensive immigration reform.

Mahony speaks labor as fluently as he does Spanish. The problems of working people, particularly immigrants, have been a primary pastoral focus of his long priesthood. He knows the issue in all its dimensions, from the halls of Congress to the garment district shop floors and the fields of the Central Valley.

Comprehensive immigration reform, he argues, is both a moral and an economic imperative. The essence of our current situation, Mahony says, can be grasped by envisioning two signs posted along our southern border: One says, "Help Wanted;" the other, "No Trespassing."

It's an unworkable push-pull that demands, among other reforms, a well-administered guest-worker program to meet continuing labor needs, and a registration and restitution process for those already in the country without papers. In other words, precisely the sort of reforms that would make unlikely the kinds of abuse Diaz Santillan alleges she suffered in the Whitman household.

One of the realities Mahony cited was the fact that at least 70% of America's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already live in so-called blended families — that is, those in which one or more members is a citizen or legal resident. The percentage well may be higher here in California, where fully one-third of all workers are immigrants.

The human and economic complexities of such a situation are unlikely to get much of a hearing in a round of "gotcha" media coverage. But they would if the media compared the realities of Whitman's own household with her campaign speeches denouncing any path to citizenship for undocumented workers and urging more raids, fines and suspensions of business licenses for those who employ them.

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