LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - If most California voters seem to have shrugged off the controversy over Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman’s illegal immigrant housekeeper, it may be because so many of the state’s residents have been in Whitman’s shoes.
Mexico native Nicky Diaz surfaced last week to claim that former eBay chief Whitman and her husband, Dr. Griff Harsh, knowingly employed her illegally for nine years and treated her poorly.
Whitman has fiercely denied the accusation, saying Diaz lied to the couple about her immigration status and was being manipulated by high-profile attorney Gloria Allred, who has been a friend and supporter of Democratic rival Jerry Brown.
Whitman’s problem in some ways illustrates the complexities of the immigration issue in the United States and especially California, which shares a border with Mexico and is home to more illegal immigrant workers than any other state.
“Everybody has a housekeeper that’s illegal,” Sue McDanel, a retired schoolteacher, told Reuters in dismissing the furor.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday found that 88 percent of registered California voters had heard about the flap over Whitman’s maid. But 72 percent said the information would make no difference in the way they plan to vote on November 2.
According to the most recent Pew Hispanic Center estimates, there are about 1.8 million illegal immigrants working in California, representing more than 9 percent of the state’s labor force.
The Whitman campaign has made public a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service form signed by Diaz at the time she was hired in 2000 in which Diaz claims to be a lawful permanent U.S. resident, along with the Social Security card and California driver’s license she supplied.
Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer for Pew, said 55 to 60 percent of illegal immigrants are thought to be working in jobs that require them to furnish such documents. Nationally, a quarter of house cleaners and grounds and maintenance workers are in the country illegally, Passel estimated.
McDanel, interviewed outside a Lowe’s home improvement store south of Los Angeles, said over 15 years she never inquired about her housekeeper’s immigration status.
“She’s a good person and a good worker and I trust her with my house and my stuff and everything,” she said.
If the accusations by Allred and Diaz damage Whitman, it may be among Hispanic voters, a typically Democratic constituency that she has worked hard to win over.
California’s largest public employees’ union seized on the claims by Diaz, funding a Spanish-language TV spot that refers to Whitman’s calls for employer accountability and calls her two-faced.
“She is a hypocrite because I listened to her on the last campaign and she spoke poorly of Hispanics, and now she’s changed her politics,” salesman Marvin Montero said in Spanish when he was interviewed by Reuters.
But Maria Capuhino, a 70-year-old retiree originally from El Salvador who was on her way to catch a bus in Los Angeles, said she supports Whitman rather than the former housekeeper.
“It’s never good to mistreat the person who gave you work,” she said, speaking in Spanish.
Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Peter Henderson in San Francisco; Editing by Will Dunham