Thursday, October 19, 2006

What's In A Name

Recently, as you may have read, about 14,000 Democratic voters in central Orange County who happen to have last names like mine received a rather unfriendly letter. Unsurprisingly, officials investigated its source and are now calling for Rep. Loretta Sanchez's opponent, Tan D. Nguyen, to drop out of his [doomed] House bid. But as I read coverage of this developing story, I keep stumbling over the same part:

State and federal officials were investigating the letter, which was written in Spanish and mailed to an estimated 14,000 Democratic voters in central Orange County. It 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 jail time."

Immigrants who are adult naturalized citizens are eligible to vote.
[Emphasis added.] As the article says, clearly, "immigrants" are by definition naturalized citizens who would then be eligible to register and to cast votes.

The letter's particularly sinister effect, of course, is to imply that even immigrants - those here legally and eligible to vote (if they've registered, etc) - are ineligible in the same way as those here illegally would be ineligible. As the article points out, a lot of effort goes into bringing immigrants into the political process and encouraging them to vote - so this kind letter draws its potential power right from the natural confusion facing some immigrants who are still navigating the rights and benefits of citizenship.

But here's the thing. If we hadn't, in our effort to scrub clean our language, swapped illegal immigrant for the un-PC illegal aliens moniker, would this letter have been as effective?

There's a lot of intra-community fighting right now, a lot of presumptions and misperceptions, about what The Latino Voter thinks and wants. There's a tendency as well to lump all Hispanics/Latinos/Mexican/Mexican Americans/pick this week's term (I don't even know what to call myself half the time) into one "pro-immigration" category that then gets used to paint us as soft-on-border-security and hippie-loving, knee-jerk lefty freaks.

Except that's wrong.

There's a world of difference between immigrants and those here illegally. That difference absolutely is not accurately conveyed right now with the terms immigration and illegal immigration. Illegal immigrants are not immigrants. They are here illegally.

So why aren't we calling it like it is? At one time, the thinking must have gone that softening "illegal alien" to "illegal immigrant" would humanize immigration policy and the view on those here illegally. Except I think we liberal types might have dug our own graves on that one. Now, no one understands what "immigrant" actually means - and the hundreds of thousands of people who have immigrated to this country have a lot more unnecessary explaining to do and a lot more of other people's baggage to work around.

Of course, we'll never really reform anything language-wise. This is why it's best to avoid rebranding our language. We can't control it too long and the natural consequence is, well, the Bush Administration which has seldom used a word correctly in nearly 6 years.

A side note of interest: this Nguyen guy is also an immigrant - one who used to be a Democrat, at that.


Anonymous said...

A much better copy of the letter, together with a very passable translation, is posted at

Note that the first paragraph specifically urges citizens to vote:

"If you are a U.S. Citizen, I urge you to participate in the democratic process of voting."

By necessary elimination, the rest of the letter speaks to those who are NOT citizens, i.e., illegal immigrants and legal emigrants from Latin America who have not been naturalized. Neither group is allowed to vote.

NOTE 1: In Spanish, the letter does not use the word "immigrant", but "emigrant" - meaning emigrant FROM Mexico and other countries. In other words, people who still define themselves by reference to the country they left behind to live in the U.S.

NOTE 2: Unlike native-born Americans, naturalized immigrants are required to pass a citizenship test.

Bottom line: the letter will not have deterred a single citizen from voting. It is core free speech, whoever sent it out, and certainly does not qualify as a threat.

Illegal voting is a major issue in Orange County. A congressional investigation found:

After a careful comparison between the Orange County voter registration files and INS databases the Task Force was able to clearly and convincingly document that 624 persons had illegally registered and thus were not eligible to cast ballots in the November 1996 election.60

Full report at:

Captain Nemo

cd said...

Thank you, Captain. If I had any concerns about people not getting my arguments about the unnatural twisting of language, you've laid them all to rest.

The immigrant/emigrant distinction here is meaningless - I also don't think you know the technical difference between the two anyway.

I'm not sure what your point about the citizenship test is with regards to this letter.

Illegal voting is only a lightening rod issue in Orange County because some have found it a very successful tool for inciting fear and hate. You think these illegal voters are targeting the OC? Just HAVE to mess with the otherwise friendly enclave?


I do not fear for the future of our republic, nor the future of Orange County.

That letter meant to do EXACTLY what people think it meant to do - it wasn't some innocent go-vote message. It was wrong.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response.

I tried not to go into too much detail in the original post to avoid overloading an already overlong post.

I do not believe (naturally) that this is a case of "twisting language". (Like you, I deal with such matters frequently as an attorney.)

The first paragraph of the letter clearly addresses any concerns that naturalized immigrants might be deterred.

This is where the citizenship test comes in - they are REQUIRED to know that they are (now) citizens, and allowed to vote.

The use of the term "emigrant" is relevant because it defines individuals by reference to the country they left. Moreover, as a matter of actual SPANISH usage in the U.S., "emigrado" does NOT include naturalized U.S. citizens. It refers only to (more recent) emigrants from Latin America.

Directly equating the Spanish term "emigrado" with the English word "immigrant" does not tell us how a reasonable NATURALIZED immigrant would interpret the letter as a whole.

CONCLUSION: A reasonable NATURALIZED immigrant could not possibly have been deterred from voting based on this letter.

None of this excuses Tan Nguyen's flip-flopping about responsibility for the mailing, but such electioneering shenanigans (and hand-wringing about them) have been standard operating procedure since the beginning of the Republic.

Captain Nemo.

By the way - may I ask if you read Spanish? If so, would you say the overall impact has been FAIRLY reported in media reports? I note the mainstream media NEVER referred to the first paragraph.

Anonymous said...

"CONCLUSION: A reasonable NATURALIZED immigrant could not possibly have been deterred from voting based on this letter."

Spoken like an attorney.

I reject your conclusion.

I can read Spanish, however I am not nearly fluent enough to comment on the nuances of a particular word. Even if I take your interpretation of the word "emigrado" at face value, I would STILL have a difficult time applying your reasoning.

Perhaps you're too many leagues under the sea and should come up for some air.

Anonymous said...

By the way, Cappy, if the letter wasn't intended to deter a rightful voter from voting, then what was the intent?

Just a friendly public service announcement for people with Hispanic surnames *in case* they happen to be illegal?

You know, most people who ended up here illegally know they ended up here illegally and also know that because they wer here illegally, they cannot vote.

Are there any reports on the number of American citizens who are not registered to vote who attempt to or do vote?

Back to the database question: what's the most effective way to construct a list to deliver this non-deterrent message? All Hispanic surnames? Hispanic and Asian? What other names can you identify as being other-than-presumably-legal?

Anonymous said...


The letter was presumably intended to scare off non-citizens who had illegally registered as voters. This is a serious issue in Orange County.

A Congressional investigation found that a significant number of illegal votes were cast by non-citizens in the 1996 election that first put Loretta Sanchez in office:

After a careful comparison between the Orange County voter registration files and INS databases the Task Force was able to clearly and convincingly document that 624 persons had illegally registered and thus were not eligible to cast ballots in the November 1996 election.60

Full report at:


As regards the database - news reports suggest the letter was sent to registered voters with Hispanic surnames and a non-U.S. place of birth. This voter information is made available to anyone interested in convenient electronic by the Registrars of Voters etc.

The U.S. Census maintains a list of Hispanic surnames. Having a Hispanic surname is the Census definition of being "Hispanic". Presumably this means that Vicente Fox is not Hispanic.

Perhaps Captain Nemo's nose has become over-sensitive over years going to sea, but isn't there a whiff of apartheid in the air where the government pidgeon-holes people as "Hispanic" (not including Brazilians and Portuguese), "black non-Hispanic", "Asian-Pacific Islander", etc.? Wasn't apartheid supposed to have ended with the white regime in South Africa?

Anonymous said...


Even IF there were that many votes cast illegally (and noting that no one has presented evidence into an investigation of the number non-Hispanic illegal voters who might've participated), we don't know that those alleged 624 "illegally registered" people CAST ballots, nor do we know for whom they cast ballots and either way - 624 was less than the margin of victory in the district in 1996. Granted, it was a small margin, but still - Bob Dornan, craziest Republican in the west, was going to go down.

Lastly - rumors of Hispanic bloc voting can be greatly exaggerated.

Anonymous said...

If they were soooooo sure of the soundness of their legal position, why in God's name then, were they so hell-bent on hiding the identity of the author of the letter and using without permission (if we believe Coe) the names of several anti-immigration/immigrant/illegal immigrant organizations?

If you really believe that the letter was some good intentioned effort to preseve the democratic process, you lie.....the whole manner that the letter was produced and sent can only be fairly interepreted as an effort to suppress and intimidate a certain part of the Latino vote.

I am so sick of the excuses for this type of throwback good-ole voter intimidation. Makes me want to vomit.