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Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009 04:33 pm

License to profile

Was this Springfield man a victim of discrimination, mistaken identity, or bad customer service?

Huong V. Nguyen
PHOTO BY R.L. NAVE
On what should have been a routine visit a local driver’s license station, Huong V. Nguyen unwittingly found himself in the middle of an international criminal conspiracy

On June 30, Nguyen, a Springfield resident who was born in Vietnam, entered the office to update his driver’s license and get his yearly sticker. He took along his passport and naturalization certificate, several bills and, as proof of his name and address, the letter from Secretary of State Jesse White’s office telling him that it was time to renew.

However, he was told that he’d need to retrieve his Social Security card, that the passport “was not good enough.” Upon returning with the card that same afternoon, Nguyen says an office worker “stared at me, then she looked at my card, and stared at me again” before instructing him “to sit and wait” for nearly an hour.

At that time, according to Nguyen, he was beckoned into what he describes as a supervisor’s office where two Secretary of State police officers waited. Nguyen was informed that he was not under arrest, but was read Miranda rights and asked to sign a form to that effect, he says.

“I was scared to death,” Nguyen says.

The officers questioned Nguyen about whether he’d allowed anyone use his driver’s license, why his Social Security card was laminated, and why his name was underlined on the card. Nguyen explained that he did laminate the card even though doing so is verboten, and that his name was underlined when he first received the card at Fort Chaffee, Ark., a refugee camp in 1975.

Police also asked if he’d been at the office the previous week; Nguyen said he had not. “The supervisor came in and insisted that I was there last week,” he says. Eventually, his papers were returned and the supervisor said he’d need to come back with a new Social Security card. Two weeks later, Nguyen returned but, again, didn’t leave with his driver’s license. He received it in the mail two weeks ago.

Through the grapevine of Springfield’s tiny Vietnamese community, Huong Nguyen says he learned later that another man named Nguyen, no relation, had gone to the Klein Street office and “gave them a hard time.”

But was Nguyen’s a case of racial profiling, mistaken identity, or poor customer service? It was actually much more, says the inspector general for the Secretary of State, Jim Burns.

Between 2003 and 2008, some 15,666 Illinois driver’s licenses were issued using a prefix matching that had been assigned to hundreds of Asian immigrants such as Nguyen, who came to the U.S. as a refugee of the Vietnam war, in the 1970s.

Law enforcement agencies eventually traced the suspicious numbers to an illegal document mill that stretched from Asia to Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood, which led to the arrest of 19 people, including two former Illinois Secretary of State employees in February 2009.

As a result, anyone attempting to renew or obtain a license using a Social Security number with this prefix will experience a delay so that their documents can be authenticated, Burns says.

“I’m very sorry if this person felt like they were profiled or discriminated against. They were not. The edict doesn’t say anybody who’s Chinese with a [XXX] — it says anybody who comes in with a [XXX],” Burns says.

Huong says that doesn’t excuse the behavior of the police and an office staff member who insisted that he was the same man who previously caused a disturbance.  Henry Haupt, Secretary of State spokesman, couldn’t speak to those details but did say, “We’ve refined our efforts with regard to these instances.”

Nguyen, who turned 60 this week, says all he wants is an explanation and an apology for the way he was treated. Although he’s encountered bigotry “from people who didn’t like Asians” in Springfield before, nothing this “serious” has ever occurred.

“I wish nobody has to go through what I did,” Nguyen says.

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com
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