The plainclothes officer was on Dollarsai Yurgh’s property with an assault rifle to “audit the vote,” he said. But the scene looked more like a stickup.
“Show me your hands!” the officer allegedly yelled, pointing his gun at Yurgh. When he finally left Yurgh’s property, it was with a warning: If Yurgh tried to vote at his current address, police would arrest him for voter fraud.
Yurgh is a member of the Hmong community in Siskiyou County, California. The rural area could have been a haven for the Hmong people, hundreds of whom settled there as refugees after the Vietnam War, some with their children who were born in the United States. But instead of refuge, the Hmong community says it’s facing a new kind of discrimination. In a new class action suit, Siskiyou’s Hmong people say they’re the targets of a massive voter suppression scheme at the hands of a racist sheriff’s office that wants to drive them out of town.
Siskiyou County has a Hmong community of approximately 1,000 people, most of whom moved there from Minnesota and elsewhere in California in 2015, to a cold welcome from local officials, attorney Brian Ford told The Daily Beast.
Even outside his rural California county, Siskiyou Sheriff Jon Lopey is a force. Lopey is a loud spokesperson against federal land regulations, a stance that allies him with the Bundy family, and has allegedly made local Native Americans uneasy about driving down Siskiyou County roads alone. Lopey is also member of the so-called Constitutional Sheriffs, a right-wing order that includes notorious sheriff Joe Arpaio, and encourages officers to only enforce laws they believe to be constitutional.
And just before California’s June primary elections, when Lopey was up for reelection, he became focused on allegations of voter fraud. His scrutiny fell on the Hmong people.
“I believe some of these Asian Americans were manipulated, perhaps cajoled or coerced into filling out voter registration cards,” Lopey told Talking Points Memo in June, adding that “a lot of these people haven’t been here for a long time.”
Lopey, who did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment, has told local outlets that accusations of voter suppression are “absolutely ludicrous,” although his office says it assisted with voter fraud investigations shortly before the election.
But Lopey’s anti-fraud strategy looked like a ground invasion, the Hmong community’s lawsuit claims. Local officers would drive to a Hmong home en mass, armed with assault weapons to question the residents—many of whom are not native English speakers—on their voter registration.
“The sheriff’s taken to wearing this sort of combat gear: big black bulletproof vest, very visible, cargo pants tucked into the boots like if you were in an invading force. The most notable part though are the assault rifles,” Ford said, adding that many of his clients still experience deep trauma from fighting in Vietnam and living in war-stricken Laos.
“These are people who are very familiar with assault rifles and their destructive force. It instantly triggers that memory of seeing people die,” he said. “I literally have clients who are afraid to be on their property alone.”
These plaintiffs include Joua Chao Moua, who claims he saw officers attempting to enter his home with an assault rifle, causing him to faint and require hospitalization. Another plaintiff, Joua Yeng Vang said that he has been afraid to return to his home since officers allegedly threatened to arrest him if he registered to vote there. A third plaintiff, Wang Chang, fought for the United States in the Vietnam War, and panicked when he saw officers pointing an assault rifle at him; he does not speak English, and thought the men were there to kill him, he claims in the suit.
But officers allegedly targeted Hmong people even outside their homes.
“We have reports that there was a checkpoint outside their community where people were being stopped and asked about their voter registration,” Lori Shellenberger, voting rights director for the ACLU of California told The Daily Beast. “This is the first time I’ve seen voter suppression this overt in the five years I’ve been working on voting rights in California.”
The Hmong community’s standoff with Siskiyou began even before the voter fraud investigations, Ford told The Daily Beast. It started with legal ordinances: new regulations on water hookups and medicinal marijuana plants enacted shortly after the Hmong moved to Siskiyou in 2015.
Before the Hmong residents settled there, Siskiyou County had a relatively permissive policy on medicinal marijuana. But after some Hmong people tried growing the plants on their property, Siskiyou County passed a series of new ordinances, placing strict caps on the number of plants a person could own, and prohibiting would-be farmers from growing weed on their property without a connection to the municipal water system.
This presented a unique problem for the county’s new Hmong residents, many of whom were building homes or placing trailers on new, rural lots, where they either provided their own water or had allegedly been rebuffed when they asked the county for water hookups.
Enforcing the new law, police allegedly conducted raids on Hmong homes, leaving the buildings in disarray, or handcuffing residents at gunpoint. When police issued citations, they awarded them almost exclusively to Hmong people, Ford said. During one hearing, “a large amount of Hmong people had showed up, about 300 people,” he said. “The only white people were the judge and attorneys. Visually it became apparent that they were only enforcing against the Hmong people.”
Even people who didn’t grow marijuana felt unwelcome.
“We’ve been getting reports and received phone calls from a few water truck companies that their drivers were threatened with felony prosecution if they drove out there,” Ford said of the Hmong people’s water supply.
In the county’s more populous areas, where voting centers are located, some Siskiyou residents have begun looking out for their Hmong neighbors.
At the ACLU’s urging, some 40 Siskiyou County people volunteered to stand outside polling places to watch for any police impropriety. “The community really rallied around them,” Shellenberger said.
Only in the presence of others did some Hmong people arrive at their polling places. “These people came out and voted together,” Shellenberger said. “But we can’t even know how many people didn’t vote.”
Dollarsai Yurgh and many of his fellow plaintiffs are among this latter group: people who were forced to choose between their rights and the risk of arrest or violence.
“They were afraid to leave their houses,” Shellenberger said.