Meg Whitman's illegal immigrant hot button

The candidate says firing her housekeeper made her sad. Will California's Latino voters get angry?

Published September 29, 2010 7:52PM (EDT)

Nicky Diaz and Gloria Allred
Nicky Diaz and Gloria Allred

Barely hours after a debate between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman gave voters their first chance to compare the California gubernatorial candidates face to face, the Whitman campaign has suddenly exploded in a controversy that hits squarely upon one of the state's hottest buttons: illegal immigration. A former Whitman housekeeper claims that she was fired for political reasons after revealing to her longtime employers last spring that she wasn't a legal immigrant. In a press conference Wednesday morning, held at the offices of controversial celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, Diaz also alleged that she had been mistreated by her former employers. According to the L.A. Times, Diaz plans to file claims for missed wages and mileage reimbursements. Allred, who is representing Diaz, says the Whitmans were informed that there were problems with Diaz's documents at least seven years ago.

Shortly before the press conference, the Whitman campaign acknowledged some key facts: Diaz had indeed been employed by the Whitman family for nine years, and was fired in June 2009, according to the Sacramento Bee.

Whitman lawyer Tom Hiltachk said the employee was hired in 2000 and provided standard forms showing she was a lawful permanent resident. He said that in June 2009 the employee confessed she was not a legal resident and used false documents to gain employment.

Hiltachk said the employee was subsequently fired.

Stutzman said the employee was "close to the family" and that the situation saddened Whitman.

The L.A. Times' PolitiCal blog has Diaz's side of the story:

"I told her I don't have papers to work here and need her help," the worker said at a press conference in attorney Gloria Allred's office. Whitman's husband "was very angry and said, 'I told you, I told you she was going to bring us problems.' Ms. Whitman turned to him and said, 'Calm down, calm down.' "

She said Whitman's husband "yelled" at her. "I was crying for fear and intimidation. With a face full of tears, I told them, 'I believe in people. And I believe people deserve a chance. I also told them I don't wish them any harm. I just wanted their help.

She said Whitman walked her to the door and said, "I don't know what I can do, but let me see what my lawyer can do."

She said Whitman later left her a voicemail telling her she talked to her lawyer. "She said, 'I cannot help you. And don't say anything to my children. I will tell them you already have a new job ... and from now on you don't know me, and I don't know you. You have never seen me, and I have never seen you. Do you understand me?' "

"I was shocked and hurt that Ms. Whitman would treat me this way after nine years. ... She was throwing me away like a piece of garbage."

The Whitman campaign is hitting back hard. Whitman provided with copies of documents that "appear to show that the maid stated under the penalty of perjury that she was a 'lawful permanent resident' of the United States."

The campaign also released a statement:

Nicky Diaz was my housekeeper from 2000 to 2009. We consider Nicky a friend of our family and were saddened this morning to hear about her legal action.

After nine years of faithful service, Nicky came to us in June 2009 and confessed that she was an illegal worker. Nicky had falsified the hiring documents and personal information she provided to the employment agency that brought her to us in 2000. Nicky told me that she was admitting her deception now because she was aware that her lie might come out during the campaign. Nicky said she was concerned about hurting my family and me.

As required by law, once we learned she was an illegal worker, I immediately terminated Nicky's employment. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I considered Nicky a friend and a part of our extended family.

I am deeply worried about Nicky and her family. I believe Nicky is being manipulated by Gloria Allred for political and financial purposes during the last few weeks of a hotly contested election. This is a shameful example of the politics of personal destruction practiced by people like Jerry Brown and Gloria Allred.

The charges are without merit. I will continue to focus my campaign on the issues that the people of California want to hear about: jobs, education and fixing our broken budget system in Sacramento.

How damaging the Diaz allegations are to the Whitman campaign may hinge on the question of how long ago Whitman knew Diaz was an undocumented worker. In cases like these, it is entirely possible that Nicky Diaz is being used for political purposes and telling a version of events that is close to the truth. Or maybe not. Maybe she is lying through her teeth. But for the purposes of the Whitman campaign, it may not matter. A great many Latino voters may find more reasons for concern in Whitman's statement than in Diaz's claims. After "nine years of faithful service," Whitman terminated Diaz immediately. How many California Latinos know people who have worked faithfully for their employers, cleaning bathrooms, changing diapers, trimming the rose bushes, and in the process becoming "close" to their employers, and yet all the while living just one whisker away from abrupt termination? Whitman says firing Diaz was "one of the hardest things" she'd ever done. But I think it was probably a bit harder for Diaz than it was for the billionaire candidate for governor. And I think a lot of California voters know that.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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2010 Elections California How The World Works Immigration Meg Whitman