One lesson from the Linda Chavez affair: Maybe the only good compassionate conservative is a dead one. That's because living ones make difficult decisions in relation to live human beings, and judgment calls can be second-guessed years later.
More than meets the eye may have been involved in Ms. Chavez's decision on Jan. 9 to ask that her nomination as secretary of labor be withdrawn. Critics may have found other things to criticize than her sheltering of a battered woman who turned out to be an illegal immigrant. But that was the specific charge that sunk her, and a horrible one it was.
Imagine: Ms. Chavez had treated Marta Mercado as a member of the family, having her help with the dishes and vacuuming! Even worse, she gave her some spending money! To complete the horror, Ms. Chavez drove Ms. Mercado to English classes and to job interviews! That all added up to "indentured servitude," Jesse Jackson thundered. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) had more to say about this sin: "It doesn't sound good to me-somebody who lived with you did some chores around your house?"
The network news soldiers rolled out their cannons. CBS Evening News on Jan. 7 opened ominously, "In a scene reminiscent of Bill Clinton's first choice for attorney general, echoes of Nanny-gate rumbled through the Bush transition today over another nominee." That word reminiscent is media euphemism for playing horseshoes, where close throws and leaners get you points.
But reporters should be accurate, not approximate. Clinton nominee No. 1, Zoe Baird, hired illegal aliens as a nanny and a driver, and failed to pay Social Security taxes for them. Nominee No. 2, Kimba Wood, paid taxes and did not break the law as it then existed when she hired an illegal alien, but she had to drop out because a gun-shy Bill Clinton did not think the public would understand the distinction in the two cases.
Distinctions are important. Employers now are required to determine immigration status before hiring individuals. No law, however, states that we have to check papers before compassionately allowing a homeless person to stay with us. Would liberals be happy if Ms. Chavez had told Ms. Mercado, "Go sleep in an abandoned car"? What if she had added, "When you're hungry, eat cake"?
This is not an automatic call, by the way. Biblically, we are to welcome the alien within our gates who is seeking refuge from an ungodly society and is willing to embrace a biblical way of living. But the United States has laws restricting immigration, and we are bound to obey those laws when they do not force us to violate God's law.
Churches and individuals are increasingly likely to be confronted with immigration issues not in theory but in the flesh. Should Ms. Chavez have turned in her guest to the authorities or turned Ms. Mercado out of her home? We need to think this through biblically, noting the Scriptural injunctions to welcome strangers, and also those that emphasize the importance of leaving one way of life and embracing another.
If some current laws receive strict application, compassionate conservatives who believe in being warmhearted but tough-minded might have to rethink their belief that people capable of working in some way should do so. Does doing chores make a person an employee? My children do chores, and people we've sheltered at times have also helped out. Does that automatically make them employees? Common sense should rule in such situations, but it did not this time and maybe it won't next time.
If we don't want to send a mean-spirited message-Whatever you do, don't give an immigrant or a homeless person some work to do, or you might be in trouble-we should reexamine immigration laws and labor laws that restrict the exercise of compassion. I believe we should welcome immigrants who work hard, but should restrict their eligibility for welfare. We should also encourage work as some good homeless shelters do, and protect from legal harassment those that have residents doing chores.
With Linda Chavez's withdrawal we have lost from government a thoughtful person who would have examined whether some laws promote labor or merely protect labor unions. President-elect Bush's next nominee should also be an independent thinker. And we should ponder this question: When a woman is bashed for taking in a stranger, are we building an America where people act kindly, or one in which we fear repercussions and slam the door?