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Jewish World Review Jan. 8, 2001 / 13 Teves, 5761

John H. Fund

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Chavez’s mistake was she took a less fortunate person into her home -- Bork became a verb in 1987, when liberal interest groups defeated Judge Robert Bork's nomination for the Supreme Court. Sen. Ted Kennedy pulled out all the stops by saying that in "Robert Bork's America . . . blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters; rogue police would break down citizens' doors in midnight raids." Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama vaguely told constituents that Judge Bork had a "strange lifestyle."

Ever since then, to bork has come to mean "to pull out all the stops in opposition to a presidential nominee." In 1991, black feminist Florence Kennedy told a National Organization for Women conference that Clarence Thomas had to be defeated: "We're going to bork him. We're going to kill him politically. . . . This little creep, where did he come from?" Unlike some others, Judge Thomas survived his Senate confirmation for a Supreme Court seat, albeit by a vote of only 52-48.

It's been a few years since a full-fledged borking, but this month we may see three. Yesterday the New York Times even ran a chart of "likely borkees and their probable score on the bork-o-meter." It read like an account of an ACLU/Sierra Club sporting event. John Ashcroft rated nine borks in his battle to become attorney general, Gale Norton got six borks as interior secretary-designate, and Linda Chavez merited five borks in her effort to become Labor Secretary.

The first round in Linda Chavez's borking also began yesterday with a script borrowed from the travails of Zoë Baird, President Clinton's first ill-fated choice to be his attorney general in 1993. Many senators in both parties felt she had disqualified herself by hiring an illegal alien to take care of her child and failing to pay the employer's share of Social Security taxes. The Wall Street Journal disagreed, saying that her child-care problem was a useful pretext for her opponents. Those included trial lawyers who disliked her support of tort reform and left-wingers who were suspicious of her background as counsel for the Aetna insurance company. In the end, Ms. Baird's nomination was withdrawn, and Janet Reno eventually became attorney general.

Now Linda Chavez has been accused of providing housing a decade ago to Marta Mercado, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, when she lived in Bethesda, Md. Abigail Thernstrom, a former member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and a friend of Ms. Chavez, says that Ms. Mercado had been "badly abused" by a boyfriend and was taken in by Ms. Chavez in late 1991 for several months. Ms. Chavez helped Ms. Mercado learn the transit system so she could commute to her regular employment. "She had a job already, and did not work for Linda," Ms. Thernstrom told me. Tucker Eskew, a Bush transition team spokesman, said Ms. Mercado "did chores around the house" on an irregular basis. Once in a while, Ms. Chavez would give her some money for food or other essentials if she was running low.

Yesterday the Washington Post interviewed Ms. Mercado, who is now a U.S. citizen living in the Washington area. She confirmed Ms. Chavez's account that she stayed at her house and did some chores as a sign of appreciation. "In reality, I was not an employee," she told the Post. Federal law requires employers to check the legal immigration status of workers they hire. However, clear exemptions are built into the law for housekeepers who provide "sporadic, irregular, and intermittent service."

"This is not a nanny problem," claims Mr. Eskew, who noted that Ms. Chavez also employed housekeepers at the time, for which she paid taxes. In 1991, her three children ranged in age from 13 to 22.

We don't know all the facts yet, and ABC News reports the FBI may have found discrepancies between Ms. Chavez's account of the episode and what others say. But not having all the facts hasn't prevented Ms. Chavez's opponents from speaking out. Sen. Kennedy, temporary chairman of the Senate Labor Committee until Inauguration Day, called it "a very troubling new allegation." Jesse Jackson, showing his trademark subtlety, called Ms. Mercado's situation "indentured servitude."

Ms. Chavez is known as a genuine "compassionate conservative," who doesn't wait for government to help individuals she meets who are in need. She has acted on that impulse since her college days tutoring disadvantaged children in the Denver barrio and later during her time as an aide to the head of the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union. In the late 1970s, when she lived in Shepherd Park, a predominately black section of Washington, she supported two Vietnamese brothers as guests in her home for several weeks. Since the early 1990s, she has taken in first one, and then two, children of a Puerto Rican woman as part of a program to give underprivileged kids a summer break from the inner city. In 1997 she began paying their tuition to Catholic school so they would get a better education.

If Ms. Chavez's account checks out, her involvement with the Guatemalan woman looks far more like a personal act of charity than an exploitative employment situation like the one Mr. Jackson describes. "It's more along the lines of having an exchange student baby-sit for spending money rather than hiring a full-time employee and paying them under the table," says one employment lawyer.

That said, Ms. Chavez has certainly opened herself up for some searching questions at her confirmation hearing. But before Democratic senators pounce on Ms. Chavez, they would do well to go back and read their floor statements and speeches on war-torn Guatemala from a decade ago and ask themselves if they would have preferred Ms. Chavez's guest be returned there at the time.

The Central American nation of nine million people had experienced a 30-year-long civil war and was a cause célèbre for liberals in 1991, the year Ms. Chavez took in her houseguest. Bob Carty, a Canadian journalist, conducted a fact-finding mission that March for the International Federation of Journalists and reported that "in Guatemala, more people have disappeared than during the generals' rule in Argentina, and more than 100,000 have died in political violence. More nuns and priests have been raped or murdered than in any other country."

Not every story of right-wing "death squads" in Guatemala can be taken at face value. You may recall that the history of persecution that Rigobertu Menchu, the Nobel Prize-winning Guatemalan activist, turned out to be either exaggerated or fabricated. But even so, Jorge Serrano, Guatemala's president in 1991, admitted to the Los Angeles Times that his country had "a culture of death. . . . Everybody believes they can work outside the law." The Guatemalan government's own statistics noted that in the first eight months of 1991, 548 people were killed in political violence and 114 others kidnapped. In the U.S. that would be the equivalent of 15,000 people being murdered and 3,000 kidnapped. "Day after day, year after year, Guatemala is awash in murder, torture, kidnapping and fear," the Los Angeles Times concluded in 1991.

In the following years, conditions improved to the point that it's understandable Ms. Chavez's houseguest would have wanted to return to her native land. The civil war has ended and last month Guatemala's Congress voted to allow U.S. dollars to become interchangeable with the local currency. Even so, last year the Clinton administration proposed a bill that would have allowed 450,000 refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti who arrived before 1997 to be eligible for green cards and legal residency in the U.S. "This is about fairness and redress and closing the chapter on Central American wars," Maria Echaveste, the deputy White House chief of staff, told reporters last Oct. 31. Among the bill's staunchest supporters were Sen. Kennedy, along with other liberals who may soon be hurling stones at Ms. Chavez.

In the end, congressional opposition--largely but not entirely from conservatives--eventually forced the White House to agree to a compromise that benefited immigrants from India and Mexico far more than it did Central Americans. But the bill's sponsors in both parties vow to try again, noting that President-elect Bush has declared that "family values don't stop at the Rio Grande."

Linda Chavez apparently didn't think so either. Her personal history is filled with examples of her showing personal compassion for people in difficulty. As head of a think tank for the past several years she has promoted equal opportunity while opposing quotas, opposed destructive bilingual education programs, and called for Congress to loosen restrictions on skilled immigrants. There is no hypocrisy there.

Ms. Chavez's critics are another matter. "Throughout the 1900s, liberals praised the sanctuary movement run by U.S. churches which would take in central American refugees and protect them," says Ms. Thernstorm. "It's strange they would now criticize Linda for taking in a battered woman."

There is no evidence that Ms. Chavez broke the law in providing housing for a refugee from war-torn Guatemala. She has been consistent in both her personal actions and her public positions on issues. Somehow I doubt that all of her liberal critics on the Senate floor would be able to demonstrate that same consistency if called on to do so. Would they have suggested back in 1991 that Ms. Chavez's houseguest should have been deported to Guatemala? That wasn't their position then, and in the borking of Ms. Chavez that's about to begin they shouldn't be allowed to forget that.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2000, John H. Fund