Clinton falls victim to powerless aliens: Patrick Cockburn in Washington and Phil Reeves in Los Angeles report on a national pastime - the abuse of illegal immigrants by the middle classes

AT MIDNIGHT on Thursday the White House started frantically phoning reporters across Washington to get them to water down reports that President Bill Clinton planned to nominate Judge Kimba Wood as attorney-general. It was too late. On Friday morning television and press reported that she would be nominated.

The reason the White House staff panicked was that they had just gone through financial records Ms Wood had delivered to the White House. She had earlier three times told Clinton staffers she would not face any problem over the employment of illegal aliens, the issue that sank the candidacy of Zoe Baird, the previous Clinton nominee, who employed two illegal Peruvians and failed to pay taxes on their services.

Now Mr Clinton's staff discovered from Ms Wood's records that she had hired a baby-sitter who was in the country illegally.

Late the following evening Ms Wood withdrew her candidacy. She insisted that when she met Mr Clinton on 29 January to discuss the possibility of her appointment 'I was asked if I had a 'Zoe Baird' problem. I said I did not, and I do not.' At the time she hired a baby-sitter from Trinidad in 1986, what she did was not illegal, she claimed.

Nevertheless, she withdrew, torpedoeing White House hopes that it had stopped shooting itself in the foot and could focus on health care and the economy, issues on which Mr Clinton won the election. Yesterday the search for an attorney-general ran into further difficulties when Charles F C Ruff, a Washington lawyer tipped to replace Ms Wood, admitted that he had failed to pay taxes on a domestic worker he employed.

The attorney-general has powers equivalent to the Interior Ministry of a European country or a more powerful Home Office. The attorney-general runs the Justice Department, FBI, Customs and Immigration Service and can appoint state attorneys and other legal officials across the United States.

The failure to discover earlier how Judge Wood dealt with her child-rearing problems has now joined the growing list of Clinton flip-flops in the last two months. Policies on middle-class tax cuts, Haiti, Iraq, Bosnia, the environment and gays in the military have all been modified or changed.

The debacle over the appointment will confirm suspicions in the minds of many Americans that the populism of the campaign was a sham, that the real Bill Clinton is not the boy from a broken home in Arkansas but the one who went to Georgetown University, Yale and Oxford. His cabinet already reflects this, stuffed with Rhodes scholars and millionaire lawyers.

Even Bob Reich, the Labour Secretary, considered a left-leaning liberal, made dollars 600,000 ( pounds 400,000) last year by supplementing his Harvard salary with lecture fees. Ms Wood's career had similarly prospered since she went to the London School of Economics in the 1960s. The White House staff were also worried that she had trained as a bunny girl for the Playboy Club for five days in 1966 might prove damaging, but this was overshadowed by the aliens discovery.

Women's groups questioned whether Baird and Wood had been unfairly singled out. Ms Baird, who employed an illegal child minder, had tried to capitalise on this two weeks ago: 'Quite honestly, I was acting at that time really more as a mother than as someone who would be sitting here designated to be attorney-general.'

But Senator Joe Biden, summing up the feeling of angry Americans who bombarded Congress with anti-Baird letters and phone calls, had responded: 'Do you have any sense of the feelings of outrage about the action taken by you and your husband? There are millions of Americans out there who have trouble taking care of their children, with one fiftieth of the income that you and your husband have, and they do not violate the law?'

But the prospective attorney- generals' employment of illegal immigrants touched on one of the better-kept secrets of American life. In reality, a large number of double-income couples depend on low-paid, undocumented servants.

Nowhere is this more true than in California, the nation's most populous state, where an inexhaustible supply of Latino workers - maids, child-minders, gardeners, waiters, pool attendants - pours across the US border each day in search of work for which they usually receive the minimum wage or less.

Each day in Los Angeles an army of Hispanic maids criss- crosses the city, from one villa to another, usually using the painfully slow bus system. But they rarely seem to be referred to in literature or news reporting about the Californian good life, and even less often on television.

In the soap operas, Anglo- Americans do their own washing up. This embarrassed silence is odd, as illegal immigrant labour comprises a critical cog in the economic mechanism that allows Californians to enjoy a lifestyle better than they could expect anywhere else.

In his book Los Angeles, Capital of the Third World, author David Rieff says of his time in the city: 'In West Los Angeles, maids were part of the basic 'kit' of middle-class life. One might do without them as a student, or perhaps, after retirement, but otherwise, except in the most exceptional lives or straitened of circumstances, they were more or less a cradle-to-grave entitlement.'

On the city's west side, it is rare for a reasonably well-off household not to have someone who comes in and 'helps' for a couple of days a week, often allowing both partners to work. Because of a critical shortage of licensed child-care, some parents say they are forced to turn to illegal immigrants - who provide the added bonus of working long hours for less. No one knows how many maids there are, but the figure runs into hundreds of thousands.

The same applies to gardeners and manual labourers. Anyone, of almost any means, can pick up one of the casual labourers who gather in clusters on certain street corners each morning. For a couple of dollars an hour (half the minimum wage of a little less than dollars 5) these men, usually illegal immigrants from Mexico, will do most forms of manual labour.

Stories of abuse are rife. The workers tell of employers who sweep up in Range Rovers and set them to work for hours, then pay almost nothing. And as an 'illegal alien', a Mexican worker is loath to lodge a complaint.

In Washington, the main source of unskilled labour is Salvadoreans. Jean Lujan, a former immigration attorney at the Department of Justice and now a businesswoman, says employing illegal immigrants in the house has become the norm in big urban areas. Only in rural states like Arkansas is domestic labour still commonly performed by native- born US citizens.

'There are not enough US workers willing to live-in and perform child care or elderly care or care for the disabled. There are also not enough US workers willing to wash dishes and mop floors,' Ms Lujan said. Hiring illegals cost at most dollars 6.50 ( pounds 4.50) an hour. A main source of unskilled labour in Washington are the Salvadoreans, numbering about 100,000, who have work authorisation but no visas.

When Ms Lujan, who owns a restaurant and bakery, tried to hire native-born Americans she had a problem. In Washington anybody who is literate and not on drugs or an alcoholic will get a better-paid clerical job, she says.

The census says there are three to four million illegal residents in the US, mainly from Central and South America. In addition, domestic workers legally working in the US often work for cash with no taxes paid by employer or employee.

The Internal Revenue Service estimates only a quarter of households go through the paperwork to make sure the immigrant they employ is legally working for them. Taxes avoided are small but so are the wages: a nanny on dollars 250 a week will pay dollars 15.50 social security tax, as will her employer, and dollars 3.64 in Medicare taxes.

(Photograph omitted)

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