Message to Latinos: Don't Vote

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On the eve of next week's elections, Southern California is still buzzing over this year's most notorious piece of hate mail. I think that's a fair characterization. Whoever sent out an obscene letter to 14,000 Spanish-surnamed voters in Southern California's Orange County doesn't strike me as the love-thy-neighbor type.

Written in Spanish, the letter warns: "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 incarceration and you will be deported..."

The letter came from the campaign office of Republican congressional candidate Tan Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant running against Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., in the Nov. 7 election. Nguyen at first blamed a rogue but unidentified staffer who, he said, had been dismissed. Later, he offered to re-hire the staffer, saying the letter was proper. Wrong. Whoever wrote that tactless missive is clueless about the law; while it's true that illegal immigrants can't vote, legal immigrants can vote if they've become naturalized citizens.

And, since it appears that whoever sent it was relying on voter lists, there was no way to know whether the recipient was an illegal immigrant or a U.S.-born Latino whose family had lived in California for a century. According to a spokesman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, whose office is investigating the matter to see if voter intimidation laws were violated, those who received the letter included "fourth-generation Californians."

Recently, state investigators have focused attention on an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department who lives in the same house as Nguyen and who is believed to have played a key role in the mailing. Investigators also rifled through Nguyen's home and office, trying to determine whether the candidate himself is involved.

That is the opinion of Orange County Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh. Calling the letter "grotesque and obnoxious," Baugh claims the postage house that distributed it told him that Tan Nguyen was personally engaged in the effort to the get the mailing out. The local GOP demanded that Nguyen resign his candidacy. But he refused.

This third degree has Nguyen hopping mad and complaining about how his right to free speech has been violated. His right? What happened to the mystery staffer who he said he fired and now wants to re-hire?

Nguyen also said that state investigators are "terrorizing" his family and campaign volunteers.

You mean someone is picking on this poor guy and trying to intimidate him? Don't you just hate that? I know a lot of Latino voters who feel the same way.

This is no isolated incident. A few months ago, House Republicans held up reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act because some of them wanted to do away with bilingual ballots. The intent was to disenfrachise Latino voters. As the Latino population increases, there will be a growing fear in some quarters that Latino candidates will win elections at the expense of non-Latinos. But aren't these many of the same people who complain that Latinos didn't want to assimilate, blend into society, become citizens and participate in our institutions.

Now the fear is what — that they will? Is the right wing even in its right mind, these days? Meanwhile, Nguyen blames the media and Sanchez, his opponent, for "fueling this hysteria."

This guy is priceless. Trying to disenfranchise Latino voters. Immigrant bashing. Allegedly lying to members of his own party. Pawning off scandal on staffers. Blaming your troubles on an opponent. And, of course, blasting the press.

Odds are the long-shot Nguyen will get clobbered in next week's election and won't get anywhere near the halls of Congress. That's a relief — although, I have to say, he'd blend right in.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Read his column at