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Nannies and Housekeepers: A Common Part of Los Altos Life Rarely Addressed in Immigration Debate

Despite high-profile cases, from Meg Whitman to Zoe Baird, Congress hasn't shown much ability to solve a dilemma that hits so many of us at home. By Rebecca Duran and Megan Mills

This is part of a series on immigration that is running across 12 Patch sites.

During her failed bid for California governor last year, candidate Meg Whitman’s campaign imploded over a late-breaking revelation. It marked a turning point in her campaign for the state's highest office.

The former eBay CEO had employed a housekeeper for nearly a decade who was an illegal immigrant, then abruptly fired her a few months before declaring for office. Critics called the dismissal callous, and some called her hypocritical.

While it had political repercussions for her campaign, Whitman’s household hiring—and the dilemma— isn’t that unusual. From Zoe Baird’s derailed nomination for attorney general over “Nannygate” in 1993, to Bernard Kerik’s withdrawal as nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security in 2004, to Whitman, aspirants to high-profile positions who get tripped up for employing undocumented domestics merely help shine a spotlight on a practice that is widespread and pervasive.

More parents work than ever before, and in communities such as Los Altos or Los Altos Hills, keeping up with demanding careers often means that household help is nearly indispensable. Fired Whitman housekeeper Nicky Diaz is just one of many, immigration observers say, who have used fake papers in order to get hired by families who need to keep the hearth running smoothly.

“It’s very common,” said Bill Ong Hing, professor at the School of Law at the University of San Francisco. “Beginning with the Zoe Baird case, I started getting calls often from people who are hiring or about to hire a nanny and a live in and want advice.”

Maria Marroquin, executive director of the Day Worker Center of Mountain View, said she has met people at her center who are illegal immigrants and have become nannies for families. It’s an intimate kind of employment. “The nannies usually create a very close connection with the family and become a part of it,” she said. “The children become bilingual, and it goes beyond a typical employer relationship.”

More than 10 percent of homes in the Sacramento area rely on Latino domestic workers, according to Luis Guarnizo, a University of California, Davis, professor of Human Community Development, who spent two years  studying domestic workers in the Sacramento area.

"What's often forgotten is how close many of us are to this situation,” he told the Sacramento Bee in October.

Guarnizo told the Bee he found that it is not just the well-to-do who hire household workers. Domestic help comprises at least 200,000 of the roughly 3 million undocumented workers in California, according to Guarnizo.

Most are here to work, to survive and hopefully thrive, but one such nanny found the job to be an escape from her native Brazil.

Diana Dos Santos, 24, moved to Los Altos from Sao Paolo to become a nanny in December 2008, looking to pursue her education in the United States. Along with attending Foothill Community College, she acts as a second parent for the two children she tends to daily.

“I act like a big sister to the children, and the mom treats me like another daughter,” said Dos Santos, who chose to conceal her real name.

One of the drawbacks to being a full-time nanny is having 10-hour days in addition to studying and homework. When asked about the positives of her job, Dos Santos displayed a pearly-white grin and responded, “I like having a family here.”

Dos Santos is like many live-in nannies. The family that employs her pays for her food, tuition and living expenses.

She said she is learning a lot, not just in school, but also in her employer’s home, about raising children for the future.

“Being a nanny has changed my perspective on life, because it has helped me understand children’s behavior,” said Dos Santos, who said she hopes to return to Brazil after she gets her degree.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) authorizes U.S. employers to verify the employment qualification of employees and makes it illegal for employers to knowingly hire or keep unauthorized workers, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

For an illegal worker, going through the application process to become a citizen can be overwhelming, say immigration lawyers.

Immigrants must go through the U.S. Department of Justice-Immigration and Naturalization Services to properly fill out documentation. It’s expensive, to start. Initial consultations with an immigration lawyer can be $200 for an hour.

But there are many uncertainties, so taking on an alias and forging employee eligibility papers is a common route for many illegal immigrants trying to shortcut the process of getting work.

And, despite the high profile cases, from Baird to Whitman, Professor Hing doesn’t think Congress is likely to act to solve this common dilemma.

“I know it’s very common, “ he said. “It's a good example, that the facts scream at us, ‘There's an issue here that something ought to be done to address it.’ Isn't this one example of, perhaps, where there ought to be some flexibility on the visas?"

The debates are so focused on the “big issues” like amnesty or border fences that it can’t even successfully address the smaller issues, like the Dream Act, or H-1B visas or agricultural workers, he said.

One Los Altos area housekeeper shared her emotional journey of working without legal documents and said she knew many in her position with similar dilemmas.

Maria Lopez emigrated to the U.S. in 1991 from Mexico City, with hopes for a better life for her husband and future children. They now have three daughters—a freshman in college, a high school junior and an 8-year-old, all U.S. citizens. Both she and her husband, however, are still illegal immigrants,

Ten years ago, she started cleaning houses for a company and learned the ropes of professional cleaning. Lopez, who chose to withhold her last name, was encouraged by a family member to work on her own after she got more experienced.

One job led to several referrals in Los Altos, Lopez said. She has worked for the same seven families, who are all friends with each other, for 10 years. Over the years, she has developed trusting and personal relationships with the women of the families, she said.

“The families have respect for me and introduce me as ‘Maria, their friend,’ instead of ‘the housekeeper,’” said Lopez.

Two of the seven families even hired a professional to help coach Lopez's oldest daughter through the college admissions process and recommended her to other families so she could earn money babysitting. That daughter is now attending college in the East Bay.

A proud and hopeful look sweeps across Lopez’s face as she talks about her eldest’s future after college. But for herself, it’s a different matter.

Both she and her husband drive, although they lack driver’s licenses, and the smallest fender-bender or broken tail light could cause either to be caught at any moment. An illegal immigrant, said Lopez, emotionally, “feels like a criminal, pointed out, like everyone knows she’s illegal and she lives a lie, acting like something she’s not.”

Her employers, particularly the women of the families, worry about her and constantly try to help. They ask what they can do for her, she said, and provide resources of where she can seek more information about becoming a legal citizen. But they’ve helped her as much as they can.

The lawyers Lopez has consulted have discouraged her from the application process to put her on the path to citizenship, because she and her husband have lived here illegally for so many years, they cannot adjust their status. Indeed, undocumented immigrants need to be careful about applying and exposing themselves to deportation and rules that would bar them from re-entering the country for up to a decade, said immigration lawyer Hasan Adullah of Shah Peerally Esq. People who have lived in the U.S. for more than a year illegally cannot adjust their status. If deported, they are barred from returning for 10 years.

“I feel a lot of obstacles,” said Lopez, close to tears. “I’m frustrated, scared, and try to put aside those feelings to provide for my family.”

Her last hope is her oldest daughter, who will soon turn 21. Lopez hopes she can sponsor her for permanent residency, or her so-called green card, that would allow her to work in the U.S. And that’s possible, said Abdullah, as long as the petitioner is a spouse or child born in the U.S or a naturalized citizen.

Lopez may clean houses, but her dream has always been to become a chef, learning the culinary arts in school. It remains in the back of her mind, no matter how distant it might seem.

In the meantime, she is deeply grateful to have work that allows her to provide for her family. “Many of us who clean, we say, occasionally, the most important thing is that we have a job.”

Los Altos Patch Editor L.A. Chung contributed to this report

This article was produced through a collaboration of PatchU and the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at San Jose State University. PatchU is a Patch Media initiative to build strong relationships with colleges and universities across the country. The mission of PatchU is to connect students and faculty to opportunities at Patch.  

For more information, email PatchU@patch.com or follow us on Facebook.

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