Apr 1 1993

New York Times on Immigrants

Give Us Your Healthy, Wealthy and 24-Hour Nannies

The controversy over attorney general nominees Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, both of whom had to withdraw after acknowledging that they had hired undocumented immigrants to care for their children, elicited a wide response in the media, particularly in the pages of the New York Times.

“It’s Gender, Stupid,” was the headline of an Anthony Lewis column (2/8/93) that proclaimed, “It is time to stop snickering about the politics of all this and understand the real issue, bias against women.” An entire New York Times op-ed page (2/10/93) was devoted to analyzing “Nannygate” as a women’s issue.

The discussion raised a number of important issues about the double standard applied to professional women and the need for a national child care plan. Yet the definition of “women’s issues” adopted by the Times and other media was limited to white, upper-middle-class women. It almost completely excluded the viewpoint of the immigrant childcare workers themselves–most of whom are women, many with children of their own. Immigrant Latina, Caribbean and Asian women might have asked the same question that Sojourner Truth asked nearly a century ago: “Ain’t I a woman, too?”

Much of the commentary in the New York Times missed this class and race angle. Writer Erica Jong fumed (2/10/93) at women’s groups who didn’t rush to the defense of Baird and Wood, “We should be marching down Fifth Avenue waving banners that say ‘I hired an illegal alien'”– as if being wealthy enough to hire cheap, exploitable labor is a mark of oppression.

Bad News Is No News

The exclusion of a Third World immigrant viewpoint was not confined to opinion pieces. Of 142 new articles on the Baird/Wood controversy indexed in the New York Times from the first of the year, only two primarily focused on immigrant’s lives. Many more dealt with the importance of immigrant help for career women and the attendant legal and paper work fusses.

A New York Times news article (1/15/93) began, “While President-Elect Clinton promised a Cabinet that looks like America, Zoe Baird, his nominee for attorney general, apparently behaved a bit too much like America.” Not only do most Americans not have a live-in nanny and driver, but, as the New York Post‘s Amy Pagnozzi declared, “On a $600,000-a-year family income, Zoe Baird could have hired one of those Mary Poppins status-symbol nannies who not only have a green card but can tutor a kid in French.”

Instead, Baird, like many others, opted to hire undocumented immigrants–who are often underpaid and work without health insurance, workers compensation, sick leave or Social Security benefits, and are too afraid of deportation to complain.

By viewing the issue of immigrant labor overwhelmingly from the employer’s perspective, the Times missed an opportunity to cover a sector of the population that is nearly invisible to mainstream media, one that faces widespread civil rights and labor violations, as well as racial discrimination.

The Baird flap has only made things worse for immigrants. The Center for Immigrant’s Rights in New York City and the Japanese American Citizens League in Washington, D.C. have received reports of employers firing immigrant workers in the wake of the controversy.

And citizens are not immune to anti-immigrant sentiment. In the late 1980’s the General Account Office reported widespread discrimination against minority citizens in the hiring process for jobs, due to stipulations in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) that required employers to validate legal work authorization papers of prospective employees.

One of the only exceptions to the New York Times‘ blindspot on immigrants was an article by David E. Rosenbaum (1/31/93) headlined “Usually, the Illegality in Domestic Work Is Benefits Denied.” “Families who do not pay Social Security and unemployment taxes for their maids and nannies are not just breaking the law,” Rosenbaum reported. “They are denying their household help the pensions and protection against disability and joblessness to which the workers are entitled.”

Fear of Foreigners

Instead of following Rosenbaum’s lead and exploring the discrimination and abuse faced by immigrants, the New York Times more often contributed to an anti-immigrant backlash. An op-ed by former Foreign Service officer Lawrence Harrison (1/31/93) blamed immigrant workers for the problems of the U.S. economy: “Illegal immigrants…have flooded the market, kept wages low and enabled employers to avoid the cost of employee benefits,” and have been “an important contributor to the decline in real income of American workers.” Harrison urged “an immigration policy based on our own needs, particularly the needs of our poor, not on the failure of other nations to meet the needs of their people.”

A concern for low-income U.S. workers was not evidenced when the New York Times pushed for a free trade pact with Mexico, dismissing concerns about job losses when corporations border-hop into Mexico (editorial, 8/13/92): “The danger is that Congress will bend to the will of these few visible losers, in the process trashing the common wealth, the huge cumulative gains for everyone else.” Times coverage demonstrates greater concern for corporations crossing borders in search of cheaper labor than for workers crossing borders in search of a better livelihood.

The New York Times‘ callousness toward immigrants reached some kind of low with an editorial going beyond the call for banning HIV-positive visitors (2/20/93): “Immigrants can come down with a wide range of costly ailments, including heart disease, cancer, stroke and end-stage renal disease…. Immigrants with any costly condition ought to be excluded.” But the Times would make an exception for those from the right classes: “That way infected immigrants with assets or high earnings potential could be allowed in while those apt to need publicly financed medical care could be screened out.”

What happened to “give me your tired, your poor”? For the New York Times, it’s more like give us your healthy, wealthy and those willing to work for low pay as 24-hour nannies.