AG probes letter sent to some Calif. Hispanics saying it's a crime for immigrants to vote

Tuesday, October 17th 2006, 9:47 pm
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- State and federal officials are investigating a letter received by some Southern California Hispanics that says it is a crime for immigrants to vote and tells them they could be jailed or deported if they go to the polls next month.

"It's a very malicious and degrading letter. It's to pull Latinos down and make them afraid," said Benny Diaz, who is running for City Council in Garden Grove. He said his wife and five other people he knows had received the letter.

The letter, written in Spanish, tells recipients: "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 truth is that immigrants who become naturalized citizens can legally register to vote.

In a letter Tuesday to state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called the letters "racist" and "despicable," and argued the perpetrators should be tried for a hate crime.

Lockyer spokesman Nathan Barankin said the letter was "something we are investigating aggressively right now." He said the sender could be charged with a felony and receive up to three years in state prison.

The FBI's criminal division in Los Angeles obtained a copy of the letter Tuesday and was reviewing it, said Special Agent Kenneth Smith, a bureau spokesman.

The note's letterhead resembles that of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, an anti-illegal immigration group based in Huntington Beach, and contained the signature Sergio Ramirez.

The group's founder, Barbara Coe, told the Los Angeles Times she did not know anyone named Sergio Ramirez, adding she did not authorize the letter and was unaware of anyone in her group who did. Over the last several days, Coe said, she has taken dozens of
calls from Orange County Hispanics who received a letter.

It "puts a shadow on our credibility, that we would target certain people who might be citizens of our country," she said.

She did not immediately return calls Tuesday from The Associated Press.

The letter contained several grammatical errors and reads like a literal translation from English to Spanish, suggesting it was not written by a native Spanish speaker.

"Why send something like this?" said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles. "The intention is clearly to shed fear and intimidation, and ultimately suppress a vote that is critical in the elections."

John Trasvina, interim president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, suggested the letter might have a backlash effect.

"A lot of people will get angered by this and say, 'No you can't take away my right to vote,"' said Trasvina.