In which everyone is wrong on immigration

In California's gubernatorial race, Republican Meg Whitman has spent millions on a Spanish- language ad campaign promising she'll put Latinos to work.

I didn't know she meant cleaning her house.

Thank goodness for domestic workers. This contest was becoming so boring that it was getting difficult to find people who cared about the outcome. Whitman is basically a moderate who impersonated a fire-breathing conservative on immigration and other issues in the GOP primary, and has spent the last few months trying to move back to the center. Her opponent, Jerry Brown, has reinvented himself so many times in the last three decades that his supporters can't be sure which version will be sworn in if he is elected.

Now Nicky Diaz Santillan, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, has spiced things up. She worked for Whitman as a housekeeper for nine years before being fired 16 months ago as the former eBay CEO was preparing to launch her campaign.

At a news conference with Gloria Allred -- the Los Angeles lawyer who needs television cameras like plants need water -- Santillan said she had been "exploited, disrespected, humiliated and emotionally and financially abused" and that her work wasn't appreciated or valued.

That's rich. You know what really wasn't appreciated or valued? The immigration statute Santillan violated on her way into the United States.

Allred -- who has what CNN called an extensive history of contributing to Democratic candidates -- plans to sue for unpaid wages.

The Whitman campaign immediately responded by providing immigration and IRS forms that Santillan signed in 2000 when she first applied for a job as a housekeeper, stating that she was a legal resident of the United States, and a copy of a Social Security card that Santillan presented to Whitman. The candidate claims that, as soon as she learned that her maid was an illegal immigrant, she let her go. This wasn't easy, Whitman said, because she considered Santillan "a friend."

Allred alleged that Whitman received, over several years, numerous letters from the government informing her that her maid's Social Security number belonged to someone else.

Santillan claimed that at no point did Whitman ever ask if she was in the country legally.

That part I can believe. It's not against the law to hire an illegal immigrant. It's only against the law to knowingly hire one. This is why Californians live by a simple creed: "Don't ask, don't tell." It allows for cognitive dissonance. People pay illegal immigrants with one hand; with the other, they call in to talk radio shows and complain about illegal immigration.

Santillan's version of the separation differs from Whitman's.

According to the housekeeper, once her status was revealed, Whitman said: "You don't know me and I do not know you. You have never seen me and I have never seen you."

Predictably, Brown pounced. The whole affair, he said, shows that Whitman "thinks the rules don't apply to her." He also expressed the hope that Santillan will be "treated with respect and dignity as this story unfolds."

That's also rich. Brown hasn't treated the immigration issue with respect and dignity. He enjoys the support of both Latinos and organized labor, two groups at odds in the debate since one favors comprehensive reform and the other torpedoed it. It's no wonder that, in refusing to talk about the issue, Brown has gone yellow.

Whitman also behaved badly, if even part of what Santillan says is true. It's far-fetched to believe that Whitman didn't know or at least suspect that her housekeeper was in the country illegally. It's more likely that she didn't want to know. And yet, she tried to convince the GOP right wing that she was tough on illegal immigration by suggesting a crackdown on employers. What hypocrisy.

In fact, during a recent debate with Brown, Whitman said in response to a question about illegal immigration: "We do have to hold employers accountable for hiring only documented workers and we do have to enforce that law."

Whitman has said that, if elected, she plans to use state and local police to help federal agents squeeze employers who hire illegal immigrants by imposing fines or stripping away business licenses.

Whitman has also promised that she would bar illegal immigrant students from attending state colleges and universities.

Now we know why. We can't have illegal immigrants getting a college education that, down the line, gives them a shot at prestigious, well-paying jobs. Who would clean our houses?

Navarrette's e-mail address is