Zoe Baird Is Famous, Her Nanny Is Forgotten

Illegal immigrants make tremendous contributions to the nation's economy, but Americans treat them as political castoffs and outlaws

By , based in El Paso, Texas, is an immigration rights activist and author of "Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the US-Mexico Border" (Cinco Puntos Press, 1991).

AFTER Zoe Baird blew it, this woman from ABC's 20/20 started calling me from New York. She'd heard that here on the United States-Mexico line practically everybody employs illegal housekeepers - "maids," she called them, echoing the local dialect. She wanted me to help her find some in the homes of Border Patrol agents. 20/20 would then aim cameras at their door and voila! Instant expose of the hypocrisy surrounding the downfall of Ms. Baird and Judge Kimba Wood.

She went on and on about working women, bad day care, and gender bias. I agreed but still refused to help. She couldn't understand why. In a nutshell it's because when I asked her if she knew the name Lillian Cordero, she blithely drew a blank.

Lillian Cordero is Baird's former Peruvian nanny, one of some 3 million to 5 million undocumented foreigners in the US. The 20/20 woman had never heard of her. But while Baird was invited to resume her $507,000-a-year job as a corporate lawyer, Ms. Cordero was booted back to Peru along with her husband.

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Cordero and women like her work hard. They are the backbone of such industries as food service, apparel manufacturing, and yes, domestic child care that makes it possible for many US-citizen mothers to hold jobs. Yet despite their tremendous contributions to the nation's gross national productivity, people like Cordero are outlaws. In the mid-1980s, new regulations deprived them of public health care, General Assistance, or government housing. It also became a crime to hire them.

The employment ban was supposed to discourage illegal immigration. It didn't. North of the border, service jobs pay $40 a day, while US assembly jobs are fleeing south where factories employing mostly women offer closer to $40 a week.

As more gringas fill out welfare forms, more Latinas, Irish, Asians, Africans, and Caribbeans sneak here with no forms at all. In 1986, the US Border Patrol made 1.6 million arrests for illegal entry. A significant number were women; during the past decade, their proportions compared to male immigrants steadily increased. Arrest figures declined after the hiring ban but have crept back almost to previous levels. For every arrest, an estimated two or three immigrants evade capture. Women like Cordero are still coming here to work and live in society's shadows.

THOSE shadows delight some employers. In the garment sweatshops of Miami, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn, undocumented seamstresses often make $2 an hour and don't dare complain for fear of rousing the boss's ire and inviting an immigration service raid. In Manhattan, the going rate for a nanny with a green card is $500 a week. For an "illegal alien," it's $225 - still a fortune compared to what she earns on the border: $70.

Such employees had better not think about unions, much less union-style working conditions. Columnist Mike Royko approvingly mentioned a woman complaining about her own experience advertising for a baby sitter. "Most of the American women who called me started off by asking how much it paid, how many days off they'd get, how many holidays...," she said. "That's why I ended up hiring an illegal. I'm not going to pay someone to change diapers and have them act like they belong to the Teamsters."

What some employers like about women without papers is exactly what they like about their cousins who stay home. The people putting together all the cassette tapes, pants, and toys labeled "Assembled in Mexico" for $1 an hour seldom act like they belong to the Teamsters. If they do, they generally get fired, beat up, or shot. The same goes for El Salvador, Haiti, and the Philippines, whose many cheap products we welcome - and whose undocumented workers we claim we don't.

That's the real hypocrisy of the Zoe Baird/Kimba Wood fiasco. When Baird needed cheap, dependable child care she welcomed Lillian Cordero. But then push came to shove. As she went down in flames, Baird could have criticized the hiring ban and denounced the policy that outlaws millions of people who enrich this country. Taking that position probably wouldn't have saved her, but it might have helped Judge Wood by braking a witch hunt against working women and against immigrants. Instead, Baird dismissed Co rdero, reported her to the feds, then apologized for her existence.

While all this was going on, Bill Clinton said he would not reopen negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which allows goods but not workers to flow untrammeled from Canada to Mexico.

Mr. Clinton has also declared that he would continue the Bush administration's policy of turning back boatloads of Haitians found on the high seas rather than accept them as refugees. This reversal of a campaign promise raised no storm of protest.

Once upon a time the US was proud of its melting pot and an immigrant tradition that included female labor. Now, whether we're for them or against them, the only people who seem to count are natives like Baird and Wood. As for the Lillian Corderos - the third-world women who strive for a decent life and who better us in their struggle - they are this country's political castoffs.

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