"I believe that I would have made a great secretary of labor," Chavez said in a news conference at Bush transition headquarters in Washington. "I have decided that I am becoming a distraction and therefore I have asked President-elect Bush to withdraw my name as secretary of labor."
Contrary to earlier statements, Chavez told reporters that she believed she always knew that Marta Mercado, the Guatemalan woman whom she had helped, was in the country illegally. But the former Reagan administration official said she doesn't check "green cards" when she sees a woman who has been battered, and who has no place to go. Chavez added she would take her in again, "in an instant, without hesitation" despite what has happened as a result.
Bush, in a statement, called Chavez "a good person with a great deal of compassion" and said he was disappointed she would not be in his Cabinet.
"My, what a difference a week makes," Chavez began her news conference, prefacing her withdrawal with a description of the help she got from others during a difficult childhood. She said that she vowed then she would always be there for other people, and said that while "I am not Mother Teresa ... I have tried to do right by people who have been in need."
According to GOP officials speaking on condition anonymity, Chavez stepped aside under pressure from Bush's political team. But Chavez said Wednesday the decision to bow out was her own.
"I think I disappointed the Bush transition and put them in a difficult position by not bein more forthcoming. And I decided it was time to go because I was providing a tremendous distraction from the issue at hand, which was getting all of the nominees confirmed," Chavez told the CBS News Early Show Wednesday. "I put the Bush transition in a difficult position."
These GOP officials, who were involved in the matter, said Bush aides had begun to doubt the nominee's credibility on a key question: When did Chavez learn that Mercado was in the United States illegally? Prior to Tuesday, Chavez had said that she didn't know until after the woman had left her suburban Maryland home.
In a sign of trouble on Capitol Hill for Chavez, Republican support in the Senate for Chavez before her withdrawal appeared to soften as the immigrant controversy grew.
"If she knew exactly what was going on and if she violated the law, it should be an issue and should be considered," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. "It's a serious issue."
Federal law prohibits hiring illegal immigrants. On Monday, the Bush team declined to say whether the Guatemalan immigrant had been paid to do household chores for Chavez nearly a decade ago. The day before that, the Bush camp denied Chavez ever employed the woman.
While Bush's camp was insisting Chavez didn't know Mercado was in the country illegally, Mercado said just the opposite in an interview.
"She knew I was not legal in this country," Mercado said. "She knew I didn't have my green card." She added that Chavez offered once or twice to help her gain legal status.
"She had the intention to be my sponsor," Mercado said.
As for doing housework, Mercado said, "I did it sometimes. ... I was living at the home and I felt that it was necessary for me to do things. ... I'm not sure" whether the money Chavez gave her was pay or a gift.
Mercado said FBI agents interviewed her on Sunday about her ties to Chavez and that she had talked to Chavez the night before. Asked whether Chavez told her what to say, Mercado replied, "No, not really."
After living with Chavez for about two years, Mercado returned to Guatemala, coming back to the United States in 1994 on a tourist's visa. That visa expired and she was here illegally again until marrying a U.S. citizen. She now has a visa that allows her to work here legally.
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