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Jewish World Review Jan. 11, 2001 / 16 Teves, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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The fanaticism of Linda Chavez -- LINDA CHAVEZ has only herself to blame for the fact that she won't be the next secretary of labor. Frankly, she should have known better.

She should have known better than to open her heart to a stranger in need. Let alone a stranger who had just spent 10 days in a shelter for battered women. Let alone a battered woman who couldn't speak English, had very little money, and was fleeing a country racked by civil war and political murder.

What was Chavez thinking? Was she out of her right-wing mind? How could she and her husband have allowed Marta Mercado to share their home while trying to get her life in order and obtain a green card? How could she have driven Mercado to English classes? Or showed her how to get around on the subway? Or occasionally given her -- of all things! -- spending money? She must have been deranged to think she could extend such compassion to another person and get away with it.

Anyone who's been around Washington as long as Chavez has knows that people who aspire to government power and influence don't do such things. You think Senator Ted Kennedy, who lost no time calling Chavez's extraordinary generosity "a very troubling new allegation," would let a homeless Central American refugee move in with his family? You think John J. Sweeney, the AFL-CIO boss who declared war on Chavez and pronounced her relationship with Mercado "really unfortunate," is going to drive some battered woman with no green card to her English classes?

Oh, no. Nosiree. It's all well and good to talk about helping the vulnerable and being kind to strangers and the-greatest-of-these-is-charity. But to actually live that way? To respond to the misfortune of another human being with genuine self-sacrifice? To show concern for the poor by reaching into your own pocket?

Real Washington players know that only a fanatic behaves like that. And that was just the point that Kennedy and Sweeney -- and People for the American Way's Ralph Neas and the National Council of La Raza and all those other leftist mouthpieces that joined in assailing Chavez -- were trying to make about her all along: She's a fanatic.

And she persists in her fanaticism! "Knowing everything that has happened over the last week," she said at her press conference on Tuesday, "if that woman showed up at my door, if I was asked . . . to do that again, I would do it in an instant, without hesitation."

She probably would. She and her husband have a history of bending over backward to help immigrants and others in difficulty. They opened their home to the Bui brothers, refugees from Vietnam. They paid for private school for the children of Ada Iturrino, a single mother from Puerto Rico. They aided Margarita Valladares in becoming a citizen and getting her first job. "They are a family who help anybody, no matter who the person is," Valladares said Tuesday afternoon. "No matter what the problem, they are always there."

And to think such a woman almost became secretary of labor.

Would-be future Cabinet secretaries, you're on notice: If you meet an undocumented immigrant whose life is a shambles, don't do what Chavez did. Call the Immigration and Naturalization Service instead. Get that foreigner deported. After all, "harboring an illegal alien" -- as the New York Times lectured in its editorial cheering Chavez's fall -- "is a felony."

So stifle any urge you may feel to do the decent thing. Remember: It isn't your job to help the luckless and forlorn. It's the federal government's job. That's why we have those Cabinet departments in the first place. What kind of society would we be if ordinary men and women started going out of their way to take care of each other without waiting for Senator Kennedy to introduce a bill making it legal?

And let's hope there will be no more flouting of the immigration laws in the name of a higher moral code. At her press conference Chavez said, "I don't check green cards when I see a woman who is battered and who has no place to live and nothing to eat." Man, this extremist just doesn't get it: In America we do check green cards, thanks to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) and the harsh sanctions it imposes on anyone caught employing an illegal immigrant.

That law isn't on Washington's radar screen anymore, but not long ago you could have heard some of the very voices that this week denounced Chavez denounce with equal passion the cruel provisions of the law she is accused of skirting. Kennedy called them "inherently unfair" and introduced a bill to repeal them. Neas found them "morally unacceptable." La Raza said they were "intolerable."

They were right. IRCA is a shameful law. It punishes Americans for giving immigrants jobs that other Americans don't want. It fosters discrimination against job-seekers whose dark skin or Hispanic names seem "foreign." It makes federal agents pursue scared immigrant workers who are harming no one.

It's the sort of law, in other words, that an ethical, thoughtful person might feel compelled to violate in an exigent case. But if Linda Chavez wants to live and ethical and thoughtful life, why on earth did she ever come to Washington?

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment on this column by clicking here.

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