WASHINGTON — ZOE BAIRD, the erstwhile nominee for attorney general, caught heavy flak for hiring two illegal aliens as domestic servants. But hundreds of thousands of United States residents are equally guilty.
Specialists on immigration say an estimated 2 million to 3 million undocumented illegal aliens in the US hold down full-time jobs.
Many, like the two Peruvians hired by Ms. Baird, work as domestic servants. Even more are employed in restaurants, factories, and outdoors in farming, fishing, and forestry.
Baird paid a heavy price for her violation. She was forced by public anger to withdraw her nomination. But most violators, including many wealthy Americans, escape penalties.
With unemployment high, and firms such as Sears and General Motors laying off thousands, Baird's hiring of illegals sent a wave of fury through middle America. Analysts say no recent event has so sharply drawn a line between working-class Americans and rich elites.
Baird's defenders called her violation "technical." She reminded the Senate Judiciary Committee that hiring her domestic workers was a civil violation, not a criminal one. Three such violations, however, turn it into a criminal offense, punishable by prison terms and heavy fines.
Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says the incident "underscores the whole national debate about exploitation and hiring of illegal aliens."
President Bush, in a report to Congress in July 1991, warned that tolerance of illegal immigration is eroding respect for the law.
Hiring illegals was not always against the law. But in the 1980s, Congress became concerned that a flood of illegals was taking away jobs from US citizens.
After heated debate, lawmakers passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), which made it unlawful to hire anyone who did not hold proper documents.
Mr. Bush emphasized the importance of IRCA "to maintain the integrity of our legal system, eliminate the exploitation of unauthorized workers, and reduce associated criminal activity."
Although many citizens violate IRCA with impunity, specialists say the long-term effects on low-income workers can be serious.
Verne Jervis, an Immigration and Naturalization Service official, says the reasons for hiring illegals are clear.
"You get cheaper workers. They work harder, they work scared. You have control over them, for you can threaten to report them to Immigration," he adds.
Businesses often prefer to hire illegals because the cost savings allow companies "to undercut their competition," Mr. Jervis says.
Frank Bean, a demography professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says Baird's case revealed a "blind spot" in the administration's views toward immigration.
Professor Bean says President Clinton may underestimate the importance of this issue in a "down" economy, when low-income residents fight for survival.
Bean agrees with critics who say the Baird incident "was all about immigration and all about class" - revealing how differently working Americans, as compared with people like Baird, a $507,000-a-year corporate lawyer, view the dangers of heavy immigration.
Mr. Stein concurs. "The initial reaction among the elite was: `No big deal.' So inside the Beltway, they were caught off guard by the grass-roots response of horror.... The grass roots sees this as class-based."
Stein says there is a "growing perception" among many citizens that "the people who control this country are practicing systematic discrimination against American workers."
The anger is "especially high among black women, who are cut out of work in recent years by mothers who prefer Caucasians and light-skinned Latinos to take care of children, making it harder for black women to get jobs. This whole Baird incident has touched a nerve," he adds.
Phil Martin, an agricultural economist at the University of California at Davis, says the flow of immigrants once was not so noticeable, as most went to farming areas.
Today, most go from urban Mexico to urban US, Professor Martin says. Three-quarters head for cities where they challenge lower-income Americans for jobs.
As Baird found out, helping illegal immigrants find jobs, while leaving Americans jobless, is not a popular act.