By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- What we have here is an attempt to intimidate.
There is no question that was the intent behind a toxic letter sent to an estimated 14,000 Spanish-surnamed voters in Southern California's Orange County. Just as there is no question that the letter came from the campaign of Republican congressional candidate Tan Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who hopes to defeat Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-California, in the November 7 election.
Written in Spanish, the letter threatens: "You are advised that if your residence in this country is illegal or you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that could result in jail time."
The only question is whether Nguyen authorized the mailing, or whether he's telling the truth in blaming the whole mess on a renegade staffer who has since been dismissed.
Calling the letter "grotesque and obnoxious," Orange County Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh is convinced that Nguyen orchestrated the whole thing. Baugh claims the mail house that sent the letter told him that Nguyen was personally involved in the mailing. The local GOP has asked Nguyen to resign his candidacy, saying through a spokesman that the candidate is "not a welcome member of our party."
Nguyen won't withdraw. Instead, he hired a lawyer to help him answer questions from the Justice Department and the California Attorney General's Office, both of which are looking into whether any federal or state voting rights laws were violated.
The letter is reprehensible, and whoever is responsible for it should be punished -- harshly.
First, it contained false information. While illegal immigrants are prohibited from voting, legal immigrants can vote if they've become naturalized citizens. The letter also stated that the federal government had installed a computer system to verify the names of new registered voters and that anti-immigrant groups (of which there is no shortage in California) would be able to access that information. According to the Justice Department, there is no such database.
Besides, the letter was an exercise in ethnic profiling. Let's be clear: This mailing wasn't aimed just at illegal immigrants, or even legal immigrants. Some recipients may have been U.S.-born Latinos whose names happened to show up on a database of Democratic voters to which, Nguyen claims, the staffer gained access. According to a spokesman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, recipients included "longtime registered voters in California" and possibly even "fourth-generation Californians."
No wonder California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called the letter "racist" and urged Lockyer to prosecute those responsible with a hate crime.
Arnold's right. This was a slap against all Latinos and an indication of how afraid some people are now that they're becoming more numerous and acquiring more political power.
The good news: Stuff like this helps clear the air. Those folks who are afraid of changing demographics always talk about how Mexican-Americans in particular should stop thinking of themselves as "Mexican" and just consider themselves plain ol' Americans.
It's a sweet idea, but one in which, apparently, not everyone puts much stock.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. Read his column at http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/op-ed/navarrette/index.html.
Navarrette: Whoever is responsible for letter to Latinos should be punished -- harshly.
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