Zoe Baird shows just how different the rich can be

DAN RODRICKS

January 23, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Not everybody does it. People who can afford full-time "domestics," people who can afford attorneys to advise them on immigration laws, people who can afford to pay penalties should they get caught with illegal aliens in their homes -- they do it.

These are the same people, Washington insiders among them, who didn't think such an insignificant matter -- "tut-tut" -- could keep Zoe Baird out of the attorney general's office. They considered her infraction a mere parking ticket on the windshield of a limousine.

Is the "Zoe problem" a problem of the American elite? That's what it smells like to me.

Everybody might think that "everybody does it" because, as a practical matter, the Immigration and Naturalization Service doesn't bother "all the Zoe Bairds out there," as longtime immigration attorney Gus Prevas puts it.

Prevas says there are conservatively about 60,000 "Zoe Bairds out there." That is, households that engage in a complex "process of sponsorship" for illegal aliens who were employed as domestic workers. This process involves disclosing to both the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of Labor the hiring of illegal aliens along with an application for "alien employment certification." Baird and her husband followed the application procedure, and their applications were approved.

The federales rarely take action against sponsors who do this, even though their applications are admittedly for undocumented workers.

"I dare anyone to produce a person, a Zoe Baird, who has been civilly sanctioned for this," Prevas says. "Zoe Baird did nothing more, nothing less than what 60,000 other Americans do."

And there may be thousands more who never report hiring an undocumented domestic to the federal government.

So Prevas, a respected attorney in this field, has an important point. But he says it was missed when the Senate Judiciary Committee failed to examine Baird's infraction in the context of reality: That, if not everybody, then thousands of people are in Baird's shoes.

"Ridiculous," Prevas says. "A bunch of plumbers trying to do neurosurgery. . . . Those senators don't have any idea what they're talking about. They don't know the law."

Gus knows it, though. He's probably the top immigration attorney in Baltimore. Over the years, he's seen Congress rewrite statutes and the INS rewrite policy and send different messages about the legality of the employment of undocumented aliens by businesses and by "all the Zoe Bairds out there."

Prevas says the message the INS has been sending "very strongly" to people who employ undocumented aliens as full-time domestics is this: We're probably not going to bother you; you're not at the top of our hit list.

"But any attorney has the duty to tell his clients the truth: 'Hiring them is illegal. You are subject to sanctions,' " Prevas says. "I'm wondering where [Baird's] lawyer is. What happened to him?"

You have to respect what Prevas says. He knows the law and its evolution, and its practical applications. He says the INS doesn't go after people who keep illegal aliens as domestics because the INS has limited manpower and, in terms of recoverable penalties, it can't get the biggest bang for its buck,

But this policy -- "understanding" might be a better word -- of not going after "all the Zoe Bairds out there" might point out a selectiveness in INS enforcement. It suggests an inferred deference to an American elite that wants the luxury of cheap, full-time, in-home help but has trouble finding and keeping it.

That doesn't make what Baird did right. In fact, the way I see it, itmakes it even worse.

I admit to being a little jaded. I've seen the INS harass the little people ---- the aliens themselves. Until you've actually witnessed a deportation, you can't appreciate the depth of the INS' commitment and zeal. Since the Reagan years, in particular, this country has taken a hard line against immigrants who readily take jobs many Americans find demeaning.

Had I heard a word from Zoe Baird about this -- that she hired the two Peruvians because she was trying to help them get established in the United States, that she would like to see fairness in the treatment of refugees and aliens, that she would like to see the government adopt a "kinder, gentler" approach to immigration -- then maybe I could have sympathized.

Instead, all we got was an apology and an assertion that she'd make a "great attorney general." Her defenders bleated, "Everybody does it." That's exactly the kind of attitude we ought to keep out of government. That's why Zoe had to go.

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