Calif. Gubernatorial Hopeful Meg Whitman Faces Immigrant Dustup

Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for California governor, denies allegations that she knew for years her housekeeper Nicky Diaz Santillan was an illegal immigrant from Mexico, and that she ignored warnings from the government that her employee might have dubious legal status in the United States. Host Michel Martin speaks with Gary Michael Segura, professor of political science at Stanford University.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, we will tell you about a young photographer who is traveling the world, and he is not just in search of the next pretty face. That is in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to tell you about a new development in the California gubernatorial race. California's Republican candidate for governor, Meg Whitman, she's the former CEO, of course, of eBay, employed an illegal immigrant as a nanny and housekeeper for nine years.

Yesterday, the former housekeeper, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, and her attorney, Gloria Allred, claimed Meg Whitman was well aware that Diaz was in this country without proper authorization.

Diaz says she was fired in 2009 when Whitman started her campaign for governor, and now she's suing Meg Whitman for back pay. Diaz says Whitman laughed at her when she asked for help to obtain legal status.

Ms. NICANDRA DIAZ SANTILLAN: She told me I talked to my lawyer, and he told me we cannot do anything for you. She say I cannot help you. And don't say anything to my children. I will tell them you already have a new job and that you want to go to school. And from now on, you don't know me, and I don't know you.

MARTIN: Now, Whitman's campaign denied that the candidate knew Diaz was in the country without proper authorization and that in fact she fired her because she found out that fact in 2009.

Joining us to talk more about this are and the implications for the campaign, of course, is Gary Segura. He's professor of political science at Stanford University. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Professor GARY SEGURA (Political Science, Stanford University): Happy to be here.

MARTIN: How big of a deal is this?

Prof. SEGURA: I think it's a pretty big deal. Of course, it depends on how it all pans out in terms of the factual basis. But I think it's a big deal.

MARTIN: Because?

Prof. SEGURA: Well, this is just not good for Meg Whitman. She's in a neck-and-neck race. The recent polls show her falling behind. If she comes out and falls on the sword and says we need to treat these people better, then the conservative base will be unhappy with her.

If she takes a hard stand and says this person was illegal, and I fired her, and then she further wounds herself with Latinos, where she's already not doing well. I think it's not a good moment for her, and it's not what she wants to be focusing on.

MARTIN: And in fact, these disclosures came just hours after her debate with the Democratic nominee, Jerry Brown. And she was asked about during the debate, she was asked about the whole question of illegal immigration and so forth, and this is what she had to say. Here's a short clip.

Ms. MEG WHITMAN (Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, California): We do have to hold employers accountable for hiring only documented workers, and we do have to enforce that law.

MARTIN: Now she says that, as I understand it, she says that she hired Ms. Santillan through an agency and that because she hired her through an agency, she had every reason to believe that the agency had done their due diligence. Is that argument persuasive at this point?

Prof. SEGURA: I think it is not persuasive. I think it's more persuasive that she actually produced some documents that she allegedly, the nanny, used to gain employment.

But the use of employment agencies as go-betweens, between employers and undocumented workers, is a fairly common practice - for example, in the agricultural industry - and it's a way for employers to try to insulate themselves from these types of charges.

This is an open secret, and it's well-known in both political circles and immigration circles that this is how this works.

MARTIN: And what about the argument that she did produce the documents, to say that these were the documents presented. And if they were falsified, she had no way of knowing. Is that persuasive?

Prof. SEGURA: It may be persuasive. I mean, the documents certainly help Meg Whitman's position. Now, Gloria Allred is alleging and claiming that they will produce today a mismatch letter from the Social Security Administration indicating that her employee was working on an incorrect number, a wrong number, which is usually a tipoff for undocumented status.

If they in fact do produce that letter, then it starts to strain credulity that Whitman had no idea.

MARTIN: And what about and speaking of Gloria Allred, I mean, that is a name that many people will know. She's had a lot of celebrity clients and most recently perhaps some of the alleged mistresses of Tiger Woods, and so she's kind of a heat-seeking missile when it comes to attention-getting cases.

And she, it has been reported by the Associated Press, that Gloria Allred previously donated to Jerry Brown's campaign for attorney general. So leading, I would assume, the Whitman campaign, to say that this is a smear tactic from a partisan. What about that? Is that an argument that voters will find persuasive, that is resonating?

Prof. SEGURA: It's an argument that would certainly blunt the attack. Whether or not voters find it persuasive is a different matter. That Gloria Allred is a Democrat is no secret and that Gloria Allred gave money to Democratic candidates, including Jerry Brown, is a non-story. It would be what we would expect.

So is Gloria Allred doing this for political purposes, to help people that she prefers? Absolutely. But that doesn't change whether or not there are a set of facts here that undermine Whitman's claim for honesty, legitimacy, tough on immigration, et cetera.

So, I mean, there are a set of facts that are interesting, and there's a background, but the background is not in any way surprising.

MARTIN: Okay, and finally, for the broader point, let's talk about the broader point of how this resonates, particularly among a key voting bloc, which is Latino voters.

The organization Latino Decisions recently did a poll showing that Meg Whitman has only 28 percent support among Latinos in California. Is it surprising that the Republican candidate would have a level of support, which is not great? Or is this a game-changer in terms of the way she's handling this and how she has handled this to this point?

Prof. SEGURA: It's certainly not going to help her. So the poll that we ran was part of a larger poll, the L.A. Times-USC poll, which reported a five-point lead for Attorney General Brown, who's running for governor.

And we find, for example, that without Latino voters, the race is tied. And with Latino voters, Brown leads by five points.

Whitman's performance there is better than Fiorina's performance, for example, in the simultaneous Senate election. But it's not historically unprecedented. The bigger problem for her is that she can't seem to break that mid to high 20s mark, which is important for her in order to be able to swing the election her way.

Now she comes off as being very unsympathetic. She's going to be forced to say harsher things about immigration, about, see, the undocumenteds can find their way into our workforce, even with enforcement mechanisms.

She's going to have to say nastier things to try to put this scandal behind her. And as a consequence, more Latinos are going to be driven away. So this is not a happy moment.

MARTIN: Interesting story.

Prof. SEGURA: She was losing them, and now they're going to feel worse.

MARTIN: All right. Gary Segura is professor of political science at Stanford University. He joined us from his home office. Professor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. SEGURA: It was my pleasure.

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