On September 29 we witnessed the tearful press conference of Nicky Diaz, the former housekeeper for California gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman. Diaz had been in Whitman’s employ for nine years, cleaning her opulent house and fetching her kids from school while Whitman rose to become Forbes‘s top woman in business. It was only after Whitman decided to run for public office, launching a campaign that has at times been vehemently anti-immigrant, that she "discovered" that Diaz was undocumented and fired her.
Now Lou Dobbs, the former CNN host who made his name with nightly rants against "illegal aliens" and their "illegal employers," joins Whitman’s ranks. It turns out that Dobbs has employed at least five undocumented workers in recent years through his landscaping and horse stable contractors. Like Whitman, who may have received a Social Security no-match letter and knew Diaz was unable to travel outside the country, Dobbs and his champion horse-riding daughter, Hillary, must have been in deep denial. The landscaping and horse grooming trades depend heavily on undocumented workers. One immigrant who tended the gardens at a Dobbs estate said the landscaping contractor who employed him never pushed for a "good Social Security number." Dobbs told his gardener to call him "Luis." Whitman described Diaz as "a friend of our family." Yet there appears to have been a tacit understanding in these friendly relationships: some things would not be discussed.
With the investigative report in this issue by Isabel Macdonald, we are not out merely to play a game of gotcha. Of course Whitman and Dobbs are hypocrites: they have called publicly for tougher enforcement of immigration laws, claiming it is necessary to protect American workers and their wages, while privately refusing fair pay and humane treatment to their own immigrant workers, who were too afraid of getting caught in the enforcement net to stand up for their rights. Instead they were left working extra hours off the clock (Whitman’s maid) or earning poverty wages (Dobbs’s gardeners). But the more important revelation here is that undocumented workers are so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our economy that even two professional immigrant-bashers found it difficult to avoid relying on their labor.
On any given day, we’ve all probably eaten fruit harvested by undocumented workers or meat they butchered. These workers also make possible the lifestyles enjoyed by wealthy Americans like Dobbs and Whitman, with their estates and grounds and stables. How these millions of workers could be extracted from their jobs and deported without causing massive disruption not only to their lives but to the entire economy defies the imagination. Yet this is what Dobbs demands with his call for ever tougher enforcement.
Despite its populist veneer, the anti-immigration hysteria fomented by Dobbs and his ilk pits American workers against immigrants for the benefit of the corporate class. The United Farm Workers recently called the bluff of those who accuse immigrants of job-stealing with their Take Our Jobs campaign, in which US workers were invited to join them in their backbreaking toil—and found very few takers (aside from Stephen Colbert).
If immigrants had a straightforward path to legalization, they could step out of the shadows of the US economy and stand with American workers to demand decent treatment for all. That might make it slightly more expensive for Lou Dobbs to maintain his multimillion-dollar properties—but it’s a price he ought to pay.