A Georgia community is rallying around a Vietnamese American City Council member after a colleague said she was “un-American” and “failed as a citizen of this country” for backing a petition for multilingual voting ballots during city-level elections.
Dozens of residents of Morrow, which is part of the Atlanta metropolitan area, and neighboring cities filled the room during the council’s meeting Tuesday to support council member Van Tran and denounce the comments made by council member Dorothy Dean in a previous session.
Tran, who has been a council member in Morrow for four years, spent the last four months advocating during meetings for Spanish and Vietnamese voting ballots. Her colleagues vocally opposed the idea in April, adding that interpreters were already available at polling sites. As Tran continued to advocate for the ballots, earlier this month Dean approached the podium and accused Tran of dishonoring “the oaths” she took as an American citizen.
Dean's comments galvanized many to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
“I knew people would be coming to support, but I was amazed by how many people were there. The chamber was packed,” Tran told NBC News Wednesday.
Morrow, which has a population of 6,400 residents, is 32.9% Asian and 22% Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census. Tran is a naturalized citizen who immigrated to the U.S. 17 years ago. She said she was motivated to propose the initiative because a significant demographic of the town is Latino and Vietnamese.
“I believe, like Councilwoman Tran, that equal language access on ballots is very important. I think people should know what it is they’re voting on specifically,” Oscar Lanza Menjivar, a resident of Morrow, said during the meeting. He said that while his parents speak English, technical terms can make it difficult to understand voting ballots. “For that reason, I support Councilwoman Tran’s petition to make that kind of access available to them,” he said.
Representatives from advocacy groups like the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Atlanta also spoke in support of Tran.
“The comments made by esteemed Councilwoman Dean directed at Councilwoman Tran were very disturbing and displayed an alarming disregard for the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act and the rights of Morrow language-minority voters,” Victoria Huynh, a community organizer, said.
Dean in particular criticized Tran for distributing flyers in English, Spanish and Vietnamese at the city’s Fourth of July celebrations that encouraged people to sign a petition in support of multilingual ballots.
“This, Councilwoman Tran, was disturbing to me because you, as an immigrant American, took an oath of citizenship that is read and given to you in English — that language you swore your allegiance to,” Dean said at the council meeting on July 11. “To be an elected official right here in this chamber, you swore and took an oath of allegiance to America in English.”
Dean said Tran should persuade her constituents to learn English instead of providing ballots in other languages. She did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
“I’d like you to know that I feel, as a citizen of this city and as a fellow council member, that you did not deserve to sit on that dais as an elected official. You have failed in your oath of office. You have failed as a citizen of this country,” Dean said. “You disregarded it, and you dishonored those oaths you took as an American citizen. I would like to say that is un-American and inexcusable. Shame on you, Van Tran.”
Tran pushed back. “Her offensive comments were really hurtful. It was not only harmful to me, but it was harmful to all the people that I’m standing for in this petition and the community,” she said.
On Monday, 28 Georgia state legislators signed a letter denouncing Dean’s comments.
“Georgia’s diverse electorate is a mark of our vibrancy and strength,” the letter said. “For elected officials to question whether immigrant citizens ‘deserve’ to participate in the electoral process, however, is truly un-American.”