THE WAY CALIFORNIANS LIVE, LEGAL AND ILLEGAL

Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- Illegal immigration has become an issue, perhaps briefly, in the California gubernatorial election because it turns out the Republican candidate employed a Mexican lady as a nanny-housekeeper for nine years. Then, going into politics, Meg Whitman fired Nicandra Diaz Santillan.

Ms. Diaz put it this way: "She threw me away like a piece of garbage." Ms. Whitman, who has been saying employers should be punished for hiring the undocumented, says she never knew Ms. Diaz had no papers.

There can't be many Californians who believe Whitman. Nine years in your house? During that time, said Whitman, Diaz was like a member of the family. Right!

These are two things you need to remember about illegal immigration in the Golden State:

Even in hard times, Californians, especially Southern Californians, are the only middle- and upper-middle-class Americans with servants. Housekeepers, nannies, gardeners, cooks, drivers. And then there are contractors, plumbers, housepainters and mechanics, willing to work for a fraction of what "real Americans" get for the same jobs.

The "legals" and "illegals" from Mexico, Central America and the Philippines are related. They are truly family. A threat to an undocumented Mexican is a threat to his law-abiding sister or cousin, who is an American citizen with voting rights.

Illegal immigration is obviously becoming an issue in many parts of the country. But those days are long gone in California. The debate here is over law-abiding immigrants, documented or undocumented. (Criminals, particularly those in the drug trade, are another story.)

There are an estimated 3 million undocumented workers in the state, most of them decent people with a work ethic that would put the hardest working old Protestants to shame. Californians, except possibly Whitman, know exactly what is going on and are generally comfortable or at least accepting that this is the way of life in 21st-century California. The economy here would collapse without immigration. The problem, if it is a problem, has no political solution because it is not a political problem.

The problem is economic. A rich country, the United States, shares a long border with a relatively poor country, Mexico, which borders even poorer countries in Central America. As long as illegal border-crossers can make more money here, they will come. Fences and guards cannot stop them all. Much of the money they make here is sent back to their villages and cities in their home countries. You could say illegal immigration is actually a form of foreign aid.

So, at best, Meg Whitman and Nickie Diaz and millions of other Californians were living different versions of the California Dream. At worst, Whitman is not a nice lady. Diaz said she is owed back pay and was sometimes forced to work around the clock. There may have been some of that; illegals are routinely exploited but don't call the cops. And the undocumented and documented workers here are as diverse as any other group in America. Some are seasonal farm workers who want to go back to Mexico or farther south after the picking season. Some, with undocumented parents, were born here, are American citizens, going to school at a state college, UCLA or USC.

The test of whether multi-ethnic, comfortably hypocritical California is a stable and sustainable way of life is what people do as their servants grow old. It is the idea of throwing out Nickie Diaz that upsets many Californians, Anglos and Hispanics alike. Most people I know here realize early on that the people serving them so well have to be rewarded in decent and civilized ways. There comes a day when solid citizens begin to work hard to get documentation for their "illegal" employees. There is good reason for this: When retirement comes they want their workers covered by Social Security and Medicare. Many go beyond that and, if they can afford it, set up what amounts to buyouts or pension plans for the people who have been "members of the family" for 30 or 40 years.

I don't know how this will all end, but I would bet that as California goes, so goes the nation. We were built by immigrants and most of them still like what they find here in the United States.

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