WASHINGTON -- President-elect George W. Bush said yesterday that he stood by Linda Chavez, his embattled nominee to be labor secretary, even as his aides were reviewing revelations that she provided housing and money to an illegal Guatemalan immigrant for two years in the early 1990s.
"I've got confidence in Linda Chavez," Bush said. "I strongly believe that when the Senate gives her a fair hearing, they'll vote for her."
Bush, who said he found out about the Chavez situation Sunday night, said his aides were reviewing the new developments. He declined to say whether he was troubled by them.
But the new information is providing fresh -- and perhaps powerful -- ammunition to some Democrats and labor groups who have opposed the nomination because of Chavez's views against affirmative action, a raise in the minimum wage and certain worker protections.
A spokesman for Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who is scheduled to chair the hearings on Chavez next Tuesday and Wednesday, said the new disclosures were "very disturbing."
"The cloud over her nomination is certainly getting darker," said James P. Manley, Kennedy's press secretary.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said there was no evidence "at this time" that Chavez broke any laws by housing Marta Mercado at her suburban Maryland home from 1991 to 1993 and giving her money from time to time -- as much as several thousand dollars in all.
Although Mercado did occasional household "chores" for Chavez, Fleischer said Chavez did not employ the woman -- which would be a clear violation of immigration law -- but took her into her home and gave her money as an act of "kindness."
What did she know, when
Still, Bush aides are specifically zeroing in on the question of when Chavez became aware that Mercado was in the country illegally. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, it is illegal to knowingly harbor someone who is in the country without proper documentation.
Bush advisers said Sunday that Chavez had said she didn't know Mercado was in the country illegally until years after the woman left the Bethesda house Chavez and her family lived in at the time.
But the Washington Post reported that the Guatemalan woman said in an interview Sunday that she informed Chavez of her illegal status three months after she moved into her house.
Mercado's husband, Ismael Mercado, a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico, said in a telephone interview that his wife, whom he married in 1995, lived in a room in Chavez's basement for two years and occasionally did minor jobs for Chavez such as "watching the house when she's not there."
Speaking via her husband, Marta Mercado said there were no household employees living or working at the Chavez residence when she lived there, such as a nanny for the two youngest of Chavez's three boys, who would have been 13 and 15 in 1991.
"They were teen-agers," Mercado said in the phone interview, relaying information provided by his wife. "They could take care of themselves."
Mercado said Chavez arranged for Marta to work for a neighbor four to five hours a day, three or four days a week, doing house cleaning and baby-sitting for cash payments.
Employment lawyer Deborah Kelly said Chavez would not be legally liable for merely arranging work for an illegal immigrant, though she might run into political trouble when held to the "higher standard of leading an agency that would enforce this guideline."
One longtime family friend said he doubted Chavez would have employed Mercado since both Chavez and her husband, Christopher Gersten, were well aware of laws surrounding household employees. Gersten headed the office of refugee resettlement in the Bush administration.
"Both Chris and Linda had a pretty good understanding of the laws about employing undocumented people," said Joshua Muravchik, a foreign policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's pretty hard to imagine they would have been so stupid.
"Is it imaginable they knew this woman was not in the country legally and didn't turn her in? Yes. That they knew she was not in the country legally and decided to employ her is much harder to picture."
The incident harks back to the derailment of President Clinton's first two nominees to be attorney general, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, after it was learned they hired illegal immigrants and, in Baird's case, did not make required payments on Social Security taxes for them.
In the early 1990s, paying someone as little as $50 over a three-month period required an employer to pay Social Security taxes.
Chavez was among those publicly critical of Zoe Baird. In a 1993 PBS interview, she said: "I think most of the American people were upset during the Zoe Baird nomination that she had hired an illegal alien. That was what upset them more than the fact that she did not pay Social Security taxes."
Fleischer said Chavez's situation was "totally different" from the Baird case. "I'm not aware that anyone was hired in this case."