WASHINGTON - Immigrants seeking a nanny job often call Loving Care Providers, a Northern Virginia nanny placement agency. But the firm, a 10-minute drive from the White House, rejects about four out of every 10 callers.
The reason? They're not legal residents of the United States.
"It breaks my heart to tell these women 'no' - I just want to help them out," says Sroda Aba, a placement specialist at the Alexandria firm and a native of Ghana who understands the immigrant struggle. "I'll tell you, they came here with a dream. But I know if I hire one of these women, it can harm my business. If we hire an illegal person and send them to someone who works with Homeland Security, that's a problem."
No doubt Bernard Kerik would agree. President Bush's pick to head the Department of Homeland Security saw his appointment implode last week over his failure to pay employment taxes for his family's former nanny, a Mexican whose immigration status was questionable. With that admission, the former New York City police commissioner joined a small club of former Cabinet appointees and other high-profile nominees whose political ambitions were torpedoed by a "nanny problem."
The issue of illegal nannies only seems to come up around Senate confirmation time. But in fact, illegal nannies are commonplace in cities where affluent two-career couples are raising children. Around Washington, people are especially aware of the political risks of employing an undocumented domestic worker, but that often doesn't stop them from hiring them.
"I was just at a party, and we were talking about the Kerik thing and two of our friends immediately volunteered, 'We're never going to go for a Cabinet position,'" says Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, referring to the new D.C. code language used by those employing illegal domestic help. "You have very conservative, law-and-order parents who do not hesitate to violate federal law."
Turley, who also worked this year as a legal analyst, says that when it comes to hiring a nanny, it can seem harder to play by the rules than to break them.
"When we were interviewing, I'd estimate seven out of 10 applicants were illegal," says Turley, who conducted background checks and scoured employment papers to find a legally documented nanny for his three small boys. "I tried to explain to finalists that I have a slightly high-profile job and it's not fair to them or my family if there are questions of legality, but even after that I found a couple of finalists who were indeed illegal."
Around here, the market for a great nanny is tight. Many parents said their neighbors hire illegal residents as a way to meet the market rate. After all, parents who hire illegal workers can increase those nannies' salaries to about $10 or $15 an hour because they're not paying taxes or benefits.
Beyond money, there's a far more emotionally sticky reason couples go ahead and employ nannies they know are undocumented: The nanny turns out to be the perfect person to care for their child.
"I've never even asked my friends if their nannies are legal or not," says Ann Barron Carneal, a teacher strolling in Northwest Washington with her 5-month-old, Maggie, strapped to her front. When she returns to work she expects to find her nanny the same way others do - in parks, coffee shops and, literally, on the street. "I'm out on the street a lot and I've met a lot of nannies," she says. When asked if she'd check the legal status of an immigrant working for her, she replied: "I don't even know what that entails."
The blurring of the law can present opportunity for illegal workers but also expose them to poor pay, physical mistreatment and few protections. Still, while hiring an undocumented nanny is illegal, not everyone considers it a real crime.
The issue is socially acceptable enough that Kerik pinned his exit from the public scene on his nanny and not his other brewing controversies. Though the nannygate scandal is embarrassing to Kerik since he would have been responsible for enforcing immigration law, the problem is less salacious than others recently surfacing around him - like the "love nest" where Kerik allegedly pursued two extramarital affairs at once, the clandestine marriage early in his life that apparently had not been disclosed to the White House and the accusations of ethical lapses over his law enforcement career.
Since 1993, the nanny problem has surfaced repeatedly in top administration jobs. Zoe Baird, a lawyer who was President Bill Clinton's first choice for attorney general, was undone by her failure to pay Social Security taxes for an undocumented domestic worker. Kimba Wood, a federal district judge and another Clinton pick for attorney general, broke no laws and paid the taxes for her baby sitter, an illegal immigrant, but still her nomination was nixed. Lani Guinier was Clinton's pick to direct the Justice Department's civil rights division, and though Clinton cited her legal writings on race for ditching her nomination, she too failed to pay taxes on a domestic worker.
The Bush administration, similarly, knows about nannygate. Linda Chavez's bid to become Bush's first-term Labor secretary crashed after it was revealed she gave money and help to an illegal immigrant who had once done chores for her.
Even high-profile people say the significance of the legal issue can elude them.
"I wasn't forthcoming in telling the Bush White House that I had this woman living with me," Chavez says. "But frankly it was something I didn't initially think about."
With about 9 million illegal residents in this country, an underground network of domestic help has been thriving since 1986, when the government prohibited the hiring of illegal immigrants. Few reliable statistics exist about exactly how many illegal domestic workers currently are employed - the work is by its very nature secretive - but anecdotally it's clear these nannies are in demand.
"It's an issue many people face - you find what you think is the perfect person for your child, and then you start examining their paperwork and you find out they're not authorized to work or they're here illegally," says Alan Goldberg, an accountant who heads NannyTax Inc., which handles taxes for families with domestic workers.
And the number who file for taxes for their household help? "A fraction," Goldberg says.
The size of the illegal nanny subculture also can be glimpsed elsewhere, like the Social Security fund that holds earnings of undocumented workers who give their bosses phony Social Security numbers. Those coffers have increased steadily, reaching $420 billion this year.
Aydin Baharoglu, a Washington jeweler, has an idea how the illegal work force sustains itself. He hired a nanny from his native Turkey to care for his 2-year-old daughter, Alara. The work visa stated she could only work for his family. After a short stint, however, the nanny disappeared to New York.
When he complained to the Immigration and Naturalization Services, he says, officials refused to investigate a matter they said they could do little about. "It was shocking," he says. "They wouldn't even listen." Exasperated, Baharoglu adds, another nanny also has disappeared - this time, to California.
"We're on our fourth," he says ruefully. "She started yesterday."