California letter falsely warns immigrants

Posted in Politics + Diplomacy by expresscheckout on 21 October, 2006

Californian man guards US-Mexico border 4 April 05

California Letter Investigated for Warning to Immigrants
By Jesse McKinley
The New York Times
October 18, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 17 — Federal and state authorities are trying to determine who sent a letter to some Latinos in Southern California that falsely suggested that it would be a crime for immigrants to vote in the coming election. The letter, written in formal, sometimes clumsy Spanish and signed “Sergio Ramirez,” was mailed last week to an undetermined number of people with Spanish surnames in Orange County, the authorities said. It advised recipients that “if you’re an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that can result in incarceration,” or deportation.

While illegal immigrants are barred from voting, legal immigrants who have become citizens are permitted to do so.

The letter also stated that the federal government had installed a computer system to verify the names of new registered voters who vote in October and November and that anti-immigration groups would be able to access that information. Election Day is Nov. 7, but early voting is allowed Oct. 20-29 in Orange County.

Cynthia Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, which along with the California attorney general’s office is investigating the letter’s source, said there was no such database. “The letter contains false information,” Ms. Magnuson said. The letter was printed on stationery labeled with the name of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, a strident anti-illegal-immigration group whose Web site features a video on how illegal immigrants bring disease to the United States. But Barbara Coe, the group’s leader, told The Los Angeles Times, which first reported the letter on Tuesday, that her group had not sent or authorized it, and that she did not know a Sergio Ramirez. On Tuesday, Ms. Coe did not return repeated phone calls and e-mail seeking comment.

Some Latino leaders expressed doubts on Tuesday about Ms. Coe’s denial and said they suspected the letter was part of a concerted, long-term effort on the part of groups like hers to intimidate voters. “They’re taking as much action as they can to make the lives of Latinos as miserable as possible,” said Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a civil rights group.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called the letter racist and urged Bill Lockyer, the California attorney general, to prosecute those responsible with a hate crime. A collection of other civil rights groups also called on Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to investigate the letter as a violation of federal voting laws.

Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Mr. Lockyer, said his office had been alerted to the letter on Monday morning, after a weekend in which Latino leaders fielded calls from outraged constituents. “They could be naturalized citizens or they could be fourth-generation Californians,” Mr. Barankin said of the recipients. “What we do know is that some of the recipients of this letter are legal and longtime registered voters in California.” Mr. Barankin said the letter could have violated two California laws. One bans the use of coercion or intimidation in an effort to prevent someone from voting; the other makes it illegal to knowingly challenge a person’s right to vote on fraudulent and spurious grounds. It was unclear, Mr. Barankin said, how many of the letters were distributed, but his office expected more complaints.

“We’re going to determine who sent it, and why they sent it and then from that, if there’s enough evidence to prosecute,” Mr. Barankin said.

Orange County, between Los Angeles and San Diego, has seen a substantial increase in its Latino population over the last two decades. A 2005 estimate by the Census Bureau reported that nearly one in three Orange County residents was of Latino or Hispanic origin. Representative Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat from Garden Grove, in northern Orange County, said that she had heard from a handful of constituents in her district who received a letter, and that she feared it could scare off first-time voters. “Santa Ana and Anaheim are the new Ellis Island of the United States,” Ms. Sanchez said, mentioning two Orange County cities with large Latino populations. “New people are becoming citizens every day, and who knows the sophistication level when they get a letter like this?”

But others thought the letter would have little effect. “I think Latino voters are astute enough not to be intimidated,” said John Trasviña, the interim president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles. “And they’ve seen the same tactics used against them in the recent past as well as the farther ago past. And they won’t take it.”


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