The Shame of It: Tan Nguyen and Vote Suppression

By Tram Nguyen Oct 25, 2006

Oh boy. I thought I could sit this one out with everything so busy around here. We’re on deadline and I’m getting ready to go on the road again – ironically enough, to speak and report about immigration. Maybe that’s why I feel the urge to write down a few thoughts about the Tan Nguyen scandal. For those who haven’t heard, this is the Vietnamese Republican in Orange County whose campaign sent 14,000 letters to registered Democrats with Latino surnames. The letter, in Spanish, warned that immigrants could be jailed and deported if they vote in next month’s election. There’s been quite an uproar in the press, and it’s the topic on everyone’s tongues in the Vietnamese community. It’s being discussed as an embarassment and also as a concern over generating division with Latinos. Nguyen is being castigated as a rogue politician and a lone gunman, so to speak, in the community’s effort to distance itself from his actions. The other interesting narrative playing out, from the mainstream view, seems to be this idea of an immigrant community stumbling upon its first big scandal in the electoral system — a "final rite of passage into U.S. political power" was how the LA Times put it. Here are these former refugees trying to learn the political ropes and encountering "a full-fledged, old-fashioned American scandal centering on a congressional candidate’s alleged dirty trick." I totally understand the Vietnamese community’s reaction to Nguyen (no relation to me), and I’m glad that more voices are expressing the need to work toward solidarity with Latinos and other immigrants. Two things stick out to me, though. First is that in all the focus on Tan Nguyen’s dirty trick, there hasn’t been much talk about voter suppression and intimidation that has commonly targeted immigrants and blacks in elections. He may be an opportunistic, corrupt, and racist politician who happens to be Vietnamese, but he’s also tapping into a rich vein of anti-immigrant racism running high right now. And he’s not alone. Today I talked with Roberto Lopez, an organizer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras in Chicago, who’s been trying to document the racist ads circulating in Illinois this campaign season. One TV ad, he says, shows a Mexican family while talking about protecting us from "illegals", then flashes to a white family while talking about the community we need to protect. The second thing – I love how this idea that it’s an "old-fashioned American political scandal" totally overlooks race. As if it were graft or something like that, instead of another manifestation of racist vote suppression. Conservatives are busily trying to resurrect the poll tax – there have been numerous attempts this year to pass laws requiring proof of citizenship for voter registration. Oddly enough, after talking to Roberto, Nguyen reminds me more than anything of the Black Minutemen who FAIR flew in to Chicago to protest in front of the church where Elvira Arellano has taken sanctuary. Maybe Nguyen’s not being explicitly paid or groomed to do what he did, but he’s served a function for a racist system anyway. Those 14,000 thousand letters went out, and the Republican-dominated city council has voted against sending a retraction. Did I already say he’s no relation to me?