What Meg Whitman’s Housekeeper Controversy Tells Us About Real Immigration Issues

All of the contradictions and complexities of our nation’s immigration policy are being publicly exposed in the current contretemps between California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and her former housekeeper, who voluntarily exposed herself this week as an illegal immigrant.

Opponents of immigration – including Whitman – tend to speak about immigration enforcement in shrill, impersonal terms: Take Whitman’s promise to be “tough as nails” on immigration policy. But in Whitman’s case as in others, the rhetoric and the reality are far apart.

Scratch the surface of any immigration controversy and you find the complex lives of people: immigrants who form relationships with their employers, their spouses and children, immigrants who are part of communities, who cannot be expunged from our lives with the wave of the Border Patrol’s wand.

“I was not going to make an example of Nicky,” Whitman said in explaining her reluctance to hasten the deportation of her former housekeeper by calling the authorities. The housekeeper, she said, was part of her “extended family.”

That is where the true difficulty in enforcing immigration policy lies: how do you separate families and communities in an effort to cleanse the country of illegal immigrants? In my opinion, the answer is you can’t. The price of getting rid of illegal immigrants is too high, not just on their lives, but on their families and communities.

Immigration opponents are already calling Whitman a hypocrite. I agree that she is hypocritical for supporting a crackdown on illegal immigrant employers while trying to hide her own, perhaps inadvertent, employment of one. But to me the actions of her and her husband in trying to avoid the potential immigration pitfalls of her housekeeper, even when they may have suspected something was wrong, are not hypocritical. They are human.

It is easy to be anti-immigrant in the abstract. It is much harder when that immigrant is your friend, your spouse, when it is the gardener, the butcher, the housekeeper, the caregiver that you rely on. This imbroglio, for all its political implications reveals the messiness of human relations that is at the heart of any discussion of immigration.