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The Zoe Baird backlash: 'everyone is scared.' Workers fear loss of jobs or benefits.

WASHINGTON -- For nearly 15 years, Mercedes Ayarza raised her employer's three children and cleaned their six-bedroom, six-bath home in the posh Embassy Row neighborhood of the nation's capital.

An undocumented Argentine immigrant, Ayarza took on this job strictly as a matter of survival -- she needed a job, any job, she said. "I cleaned windows, shoveled snow and waxed floors on my hands and knees," she said, showing the scars that testify to her years of grueling labor.

Her boss, she said, originally offered her $1,250 a month, health insurance and work authorization papers. Instead, all she received was $900 a month for 60-hour work weeks. The job ended not long ago when she injured her hand and was fired immediately.

Her plight is not uncommon. Three to five million undocumented workers are employed in the United States as housekeepers, nannies, gardeners, food-service workers, seamstresses, farm workers and construction laborers.

The faces behind these numbers represent the oft-overlooked side of the recent controversy involving the appointment of a new U.S. attorney general, dubbed "Nannygate" by the media. Corporate lawyer Zoe Baird, Clinton's first choice for the post, and U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood, reportedly his second choice, recently bowed out of consideration for the job after the scrutiny they received for having hired undocumented workers.

While the issue has thrust the child-care crisis and working mothers! issues into the spotlight, it has also wreaked worry in the lives of many undocumented immigrants -- already burdened by fear and broken promises.

Consider the case of Maria Dominguez (not her real name). She emigrated from Nicaragua 16 years ago as an embassy employee with a diplomatic visa. When the family she worked for as a child-care provider left the country four years later, she was without a job or visa.

Dominguez remained and now works for an attorney and his wife as a nanny/housekeeper in an affluent suburb of Washington, Her employers, she said, "treat her well" and pay Social Security taxes on her. Still, she worries -- not only about her status as an illegal immigrant, but more so for her friends who face being forced even further under ground, where negligible wages and work conditions are commonplace.

Housekeeper Beatriz Leguizamon, an Argentine immigrant, predicts that the first thing employers hiring in-home workers will now request is a green card. "It'll be, |No papers? No work!"

Leguizamon said she suspects that her boss -- a former high-ranking CIA official -- pays her in cash so that there will be no record of her employment. anticipates that more employers will now start adopting this practice to avoid detection by federal authorities. "Everyone is scared now," she said, referring to illegal immigrants and employers.

The problem is with immigration laws, said Martin Mellet, an immigration lawyer who beads the Washington archdiocese's Office of Social Development. He said the laws, which since 1990 severely limit the number of work visas issued annually, need to be reformed.

"Immigration law is fraught with inconsistencies," he said, noting that highly skilled professionals receive work authorization much more easily than domestics and laborers. However, he added, these workers accomplish work that no one else wants to do, and they are often willing to settle for meager wages while living in unjust conditions similar to those suffered in the past by indentured servants.

Mellet disagrees with the levying of sanctions against those who hire undocumented workers. "If the government wanted to stop people from coming across our borders, it would sponsor development in other countries. Sanctions just create a black market for green cards," be said.

Carmelite Sister of Charity Manuela Vencela is founder of the 12-year-old International Domestic Association, which battles unfair labor practices toward undocumented domestics in the Washington area.

She agrees that immigration law reform is crucial to addressing the needs of undocumented workers who need jobs. "It's unjust that these women can wait as long as 15 years for their (work authorization) papers," she said. Reform is also needed, she added, to help employers who search to no avail for affordable workers and resort to hiring undocumented workers.

"One has to do what is best for one's children." she said, echoing Bairds explanation for why she had hired a nanny who lacked work authorization.

Vencela said she hopes that, in the wake of Nannygate, "information will be brought out so employers can be more just and workers can know about their rights."

A similar sentiment was echoed by Judy Arauzo, an employment counselor for the archdiocese's Spanish Catholic Center.

"Many employers are now calling the center and, because of this issue, ask specifically for someone legal," she said. Unlike before, she explained, employers are now seeking only employees with residency papers -- totally rejecting the idea of hiring those with work authorization through Temporary Protective Status.

All TPS permits are due to expire nationwide in July. An estimated 25,000 Salvadoran workers living in the Washington metropolitan area will be affected by the expiration, she said.

"The majority of employers are closing their doors to undocumented domestics," Arauzo added. "In the field of domestic work we are going to see an increase in the unemployment crisis."

Since the Nannygate controversy has brought more attention to this issue, Ana Castillo's outlook has grown more bleak. Castillo (not her real name) has a master's degree in education from Guatemala but has settled for working as a baby-sitter in Washington because of her undocumented status, she said.

She insisted that the issues raised by it will not go away, because "it's a touchstone, a way to strike a political nerve with Clinton." Furthermore, she speculated, the ramifications of Nannygate will likely intensify because of the planned termination of TPS work authorization and the recent influx of Haitian refugees to the United States.

In the overall picture, she said, she sees "two things developing as a result of this controversy." Either employers will be more careful hiring domestic workers, thereby leaving many illegal immigrants unemployed, or employers will offer even lower salaries, fewer benefits and "worse working conditions."

Either way, it appears undocumented domestic workers are in a no-win situation.
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Title Annotation:undocumented workers
Author:Acosta, Ana Margarita
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Mar 5, 1993
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