Power To Speak

Power To Speak

The people behind the debate

By Jose Marichal, Ph.D 10/14/2010

The Meg Whitman undocumented housekeeper flap is yet another example of our confused and hypocritical attitudes toward undocumented immigrants. Lost amid all the analysis concerning how the former eBay chief has handled the reports that she employed Nicky Diaz for nine years, is what the incident says about our moral bearing as Californians.

There are legitimate points on both sides of the immigration debate. The real data regarding undocumented immigration’s impact on the state is mixed enough to provide ammunition for both sides. The general scholarly consensus is that undocumented immigration is a net benefit nationally in terms of reduced costs for goods and services and taxes paid to the federal government. Individual gateway states like California, however, do bear significant costs in terms of providing services like education and health care.  

But let’s set the numbers aside for a moment. What concerns me about this debate is how we treat undocumented immigrants as “nonpersons.” Rather than simply responding to the housekeeper herself and addressing her claims, the Whitman campaign’s tactic has been to blame the Brown campaign for planting the story in the media. In her press conference, Diaz claimed that she felt as though the Whitmans were “throwing her away like a piece of garbage.”

Soon after, pundits littered the airwaves, news outlets and the blogosphere to highlight how convenient it was that this revelation was coming out so close to an election.

Sure, there are politics being played on this issue, but let’s be serious. Does anyone genuinely think that Meg Whitman really gave much of a thought to whether her housekeeper was documented? How many of your neighbors hire undocumented immigrants to clean their houses or mow their lawns? Why don’t they check their immigration status? It’s largely because most people really don’t care one way or the other. That’s the problem.  

Despite the yeoman’s work that many undocumented immigrants do, many of us persist in believing the worst about them: They are criminals, they are lazy, they are here to have “anchor babies.” Certainly, there are reasons to be concerned about porous borders and legitimate questions to be asked about what sovereignty means. The citizens of a sovereign nation should have the right to determine who gets entry into the community.

But the types of policy debates we have and the ideas we put forward in support of our positions matter. In California’s immigration debate, undocumented immigrants are presented as nonpersons. One clear example of this is the reference to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.” Whether intended by the user or not, this one-word description strips humanity from this group of people. Calling undocumented immigrants “illegals” says that they are not simply in violation of immigration law, but that that fact is the beginning and end of their entire existence.  

You can find this dehumanizing discourse on the other side of the debate as well. Many supporters of the status quo claim that undocumented workers are “hard workers” who “don’t complain” when asked to endure long hours, dangerous conditions and low pay. People who make this claim fail to “see” undocumented immigrants, too. If you ask undocumented immigrants, many of them feel invisible in this society. They want to feel a sense of social connection, but their employers often ignore them. But we seldom hear this position presented in the media. Maybe that’s why Diaz’s statement that she felt as if she was being “thrown away like garbage” by the Whitmans was so compelling.  

I do not ask my fellow Californians to shift their positions on this issue, but I do ask that when we talk about this issue, we recognize that undocumented immigrants are complex people with depth and dimension. They are not simply “illegals,” nor are they “hard working, happy people” who are grateful to clean your toilets. Let’s talk about our fellow humans like the thinking, feeling people they are. Maybe we can start by bringing them into the conversation about undocumented immigration.   

Jose Marichal, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. He teaches and writes about public policy, race and politics, civic engagement, the Internet and politics, and community development.

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