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Meg Whitman Reaps What Pete Wilson Sowed

The controversy surrounding California Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman's employment of Nicky Diaz Santillan, an unauthorized immigrant housekeeper, is the latest in what has become a staple of U.S. politics. Since the early 1990s, hardly a political season has gone by without the "outing" of a high-level candidate or nominee for privately employing the very "illegals" they publicly decry. And if one individual deserves credit for creating the climate that makes such exposés common and effective, it is Whitman's own campaign manager, former California governor Pete Wilson.

Wilson has long been involved in the ugly politics surrounding immigration policing and the U.S.-Mexico border. In 1977, for example, while mayor of San Diego, he publicly appealed to the Carter administration for federal help with the alleged economic and crime problems associated with the presence of undocumented migrants in the border city. Yet while he was mayor, he and his wife employed an unauthorized immigrant as their maid. And in the mid-1980s, then-U.S. Senator Wilson joined with other California politicians to call for the deployment of troops along the boundary to stymie drug smuggling, unauthorized entries, and potential terrorist attacks.

During this same period, however, Wilson was playing a different role. In 1983, the senator from California co-authored legislation that prohibited immigration authorities from raiding farm fields without a judge's warrant. This became part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and effectively put a halt to farm checks. On numerous occasions, Wilson also pressured U.S. officials to stop workplace raids on California companies.

Despite such duplicity, Wilson played the anti-immigrant card in the early 1990s, and successfully energized his run for re-election as governor in the process. Wilson's efforts soon infected the national body politic as politicians from both major parties began to champion border enforcement to an increasingly anxious electorate receptive to scapegoating the poor, non-white, and "illegal" during a time of economic recession. It was in this context that scrutiny of high-level candidates' and nominees' hiring practices emerged, leading to the fall of Bill Clinton's first two nominees for attorney general.

It is both ironic and poetically just that Meg Whitman has fallen victim to the very seeds her campaign manager helped to sow-and that she has actively fertilized as a gubernatorial candidate. Like Wilson in the early 1990s, the billionaire businesswoman has made cracking down on undocumented immigrants, and making their lives in the Golden State ever more arduous, a centerpiece of her campaign.

But the outcome is also tragic in that it only serves to highlight the fundamentally dehumanizing nature of the immigration enforcement regime and the political opportunism that underlies it. Despite having characterized Nicky Diaz Santillan as part of her "extended family," Whitman has refused to say whether federal authorities should deport her, opining that it is a matter for them to decide.

In doing so, Whitman helps to legitimize a hardening apparatus of exclusion that saw almost 400,000 deportations-a record number-this past fiscal year. It is one that has divided hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizen children from one or more of their parents since the mid-1990s.

More broadly, Whitman's posturing-like that of Wilson almost 20 years ago-effectively denies the very humanity of her former housekeeper by embracing a politics that disallows "illegals" a right to work and live across national boundaries. They are rights that are even more necessary in a world of pervasive poverty, inequality and instability. In a world of myriad connections that transcend national boundaries, and make migration inevitable, the drawing of stark lines between "us" and "them" is an impossible undertaking.

After all, as even champions of policies and practices that vilify and hurt migrants such as Meg Whitman and Pete Wilson have shown in their best moments, so-called illegals are our neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family members. And they should be treated accordingly.

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Joseph Nevins

Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College. His latest book is Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books).

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