Judge: Candidate's grasp of English is too poor for her to run for office
Alejandrina Cabrera answers questions about her ability to speak English in Yuma County Court.
January 26th, 2012
12:05 PM ET

Judge: Candidate's grasp of English is too poor for her to run for office

When Alejandrina Cabrera speaks English, it doesn't quite roll off of her tongue the way it does when she speaks in her native Spanish.

Instead of the confident, strong way she speaks in Spanish to the residents of San Luis, Arizona, she speaks a bit more slowly, and perhaps with a bit less conviction, when she switches to English. That's something she admits, but she says that she can communicate at the level she needs to in English, given where she lives.

In San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their home and 98.7% are of Hispanic origin, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. After all, most of the people there, by all accounts, will speak in English and in Spanish. In the comfort of communal settings, they'll speak the way they're most comfortable.

“You go to a market, it’s Spanish,” Cabrera told The New York Times. “You go to a doctor, it’s Spanish. When you pay the bills for the lights or water, it’s Spanish.”

So why the focus on Cabrera and her language skills? Because when it comes to politics, it's a whole separate ballgame.

And that's why a major debate about English proficiency has taken the town by storm.

That's because when Cabrera threw her name in the hat to run for city council, Juan Carlos Escamilla, the mayor of San Luis, said he was concerned that she might not have the proper grasp of the language for the job. Escamilla filed a lawsuit in December that asked a court to determine if Cabrera's skills qualified her under state law to run for the council seat.

The fight began as a purely political one, with opponents seeking to block her from running for office after she tried to recall Escamilla from office twice, according to The New York Times. But it has turned into a firestorm in a town where many constituents have the same grasp of English as Cabrera.

The issues at the center of this debate: Just how much English must you understand to run for a political office? And what does it mean to be proficient?

Those questions, and the political fight they stirred, led to a court hearing to determine whether Cabrera had enough of a grasp of English to be able to run for office.

“I speak little English,” she told The New York Times in an interview, in a tone the newspaper described as a "hesitant and heavily accented."

"But my English is fine for San Luis," she said.

On Wednesday, a judge ruled that she didn't qualify to run for office based on her language skills, saying that Cabrera had "only a minimal survival range" in English.

Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson made the ruling after testimony from linguistics experts and Cabrera's own testimony, where she answered questions and read a few documents. Cabrera, a U.S. citizen who graduated from Kofa High School in Yuma, Arizona, was questioned on the stand about where she graduated, where she was born and what her name was. She was able to tell her lawyer her name and where she was born, but struggled with what school she had graduated from, according to the Yuma Sun. After being asked the question three times, without being able to answer in English, the judge allowed Cabrera to leave the witness stand and issued his ruling, the paper reported. Nelson said in his ruling that he wanted to make it clear that he wasn't saying that she had an "intelligence" issue, but it was because of her proficiency that he felt she should be removed from the ballot.

CNN has reached out to Cabrera's attorney and city officials for comment.

In 2006, Arizona passed a law that made English the official language of the state. Earlier, in 1910, Congress passed the Enabling Act, which allowed Arizona to become a state with certain requirements. Among them was one that addressed the English language.

"The ability to read, write, speak, and understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without aid of an interpreter shall be a necessary qualification for all state officers and members of the state legislature," a section of the act reads.

But Cabrera's lawyers argued in court that her disqualification was truly unfair and may be unconstitutional, seeing as there is not an actual standard for a specific level of proficiency for a council candidate.

It also leaves open many questions about the democratic process, among them: How far can you take the issue of proficiency? Would there be a problem if someone just had too thick of an accent for people to understand? Does it matter if a candidate can speak expertly with most of her constituents, who also may share a similar grasp of a language? And should it be a decision made by the courts, or should the voters be able to choose an elected official who appeals to them most, or choose to vote against her if they feel she can't grasp the language well enough? Should there be a test to determine English language proficiency? Does it matter if most documents and laws in the area are also provided in Spanish for residents to be able to understand?

The issue is part of a growing discussion about the use of English in a land where people are from a variety of places. During a debate this week, GOP presidential candidates said that English should be the official U.S. language and should be the only language taught in schools. That's the stance of Bob Vandevoort, from the advocacy group ProEnglish, who said that if English were a standard in government, it would make the country more cohesive.

"We are concerned as far as government goes, we don't want to see us become a multi-language nation, we want to see a nation that has one language as far as government is concerned," he said, adding that the language people speak at home is a different issue.

But the climate is different in a variety of areas in the U.S., as multiple language and immersion programs pop up all over.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said there should be more opportunities to ensure everyone has the right resources to learn English. He said that in several cities, so many people are trying to learn English, there are extremely long lines to get into classes.

But Vargas says you don't necessarily need to have  full English proficiency to run for office.

"I think it should be up to the voters to decide what kind of representative they want," he said. "I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to not be able, to not allow someone to present themselves to the voters as a candidate because of their language abilities."

"I think it doesn’t serve our democracy well when people are not given all the options that they have."

So what do you think? Was the decision to not allow Cabrera on the ballot the right one? Or should citizens have the final say on who they think is qualified to represent them? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

soundoff (1,160 Responses)
  1. Spock500

    I wonder how our illustrious former President, GWB, would have fared on that type of witness stand . . .

    January 26, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pika

      GWB was not the best speaker and made up words but I'm pretty sure he could tell you where he went to high school if you asked him. This women can't even comprehend a simple question in english.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • klec

      I'm guessing he could do it without a teleprompter.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      People who bring up the teleprompter 'issue' are amongst the dumbest of the dumb. They don't realize that all politicians in the last few decades have used teleprompters. They are admitting that they take their speaking points from the likes of Sarah Palin, who once made fun of Obama for using a teleprompter...how did she remember to do that? She looked at the teleprompter she was using at that time.

      Is a teleprompter any worse than writing words on your hand to remember things? Not really and it can be a lot better, at least less embarrassing.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • relock

      GWB couldn't tell anyone where and when he served in the National Guard....would that have disqualified him?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Phil in San Diego

    This case basically says that the official language of government is English. That is a practical statement that allows all members of government at all levels to converse and understand each other. Our laws are written in English and you must have a fundamental understanding of English to formulate opinions and make changes. This does NOT mean that the all aspects of life need to be conducted in English. Most other countries have official languages of government, and many people in those countries speak foreign languages (like English) in their private lives. This ruling is not anti-immigrant or xenophobic. It's practical.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • dancingjellyfish

      very sane and logical reply. it is going to blow right over the heads of most people unfortunately.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • C in CA

      I agree, but I also think that English should be this country's official language, because it is also practical. What people do in home or in their private business is up to them, but I'm tired of our government at all levels spending huge sums of money to try and make sure people speaking 12 different languages can all vote. As a matter of fact, the ciitzenship test should also be administered in English without the assistance of interpreters. The only place I think I would accept the use of government interpreters would in criminal and possibly civil court cases to ensure due process – the rest is bogus pandering.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  3. sbast18

    This whole issue is symptomatic of the problems we're developing in this country. People want everything to be dumbed down so that nobody feels bad, and many people feel that all of our nations' wealth should be shared so that nobody feels worse. How about keeping reasonable standards so that we can govern well and survive as a nation? Seemed to work fairly well for about 200 years. At the rate we're going, with all of the socialistic trends that are being forced down our throats, we won't survive for very much longer. Look at Europe. People don't understand that the Union was an incredible idea that would have generated political and economic power like our planet has never known. But people also don't understand that it has failed because the concept was implemented within a chain of debt-based societies (that would be socialism). In the words of Margaret Thatcher, "The only problem with Socialism is that, sooner or later, you'll run out of other people's money". Quit whining. Go back to work. Learn English and speak it well. There's no room for Socialism in the USA on ANY level whatsoever. Sorry, Cabrera, but that includes YOU.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Gee

    Enough is enough...people immigrate to this country to live and enjoy it's standard of living and freedom...asking them to at the very least LEARN THE LANGUAGE should not be too much to ask. The early immigrants that founded this counry didn't find it too hard. Even the native Indians learned English in order to communicate with the early immigrants...If she can't speak understandable English, she shouldn't be able to run for an elected office....period

    January 26, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • dave

      Their lanugae is Spanish - TX New MEx Arizona Cali are Spanish lands that we stole

      January 26, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • dakota2000

      Read you history. Texans revolted against unjust rule and were a republic for quite some time before being annexed by the United states.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • dancingjellyfish

      Exactly. @Dave and @Dakota2000 how about we deal with the reality of the US today. TX, CA, NM and AZ are part of the US now regardless of History. Majority still rules and the majority of US citizens speak English and want English to be the official language. What people seem to be forgetting is that the Spanish "stole" most of the Caribbean and other lands and Columbus "stole" America sailing for the Spanish. It is the US that should fear these people who are trying to take this Country and turn it into a third world Country, slowly and methodically. Ask a Honduran or Guatemalan how they would feel if we went to their Country and demanded they change all the signs to English and taught US History in their classrooms. They would look at you as if you are crazy and would then tell you that that is just stupid! That's what they've said to me. They all say the US is for everyone but their Countries are for them. Interesting idea don't you think?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  5. HR Lady

    What we are lacking is a way to quantify English language proficiency. In other countries there are language exams, and it is accepted that you must have a certain level on the exam to do a certain type of work. You may disagree with the exam questions or what level should be required, but that can be argued and changed over time. Here in the U.S. there is no measurement other than people's subjective opinion like "halting" or "broken" or too heavily accented to be easily understood. This is inadequate and too easy for someone to manipulate to give someone a job or deny them a job for their own prejudicial or personal reasons.

    By the way, if this woman is very well qualified, why not provide a translator occasionally if needed? You give the translator a job, and retain the best possible candidate – two birds with one stone!

    Having only one language in our country dumbs us down – everywhere else, people are multi-lingual, and it just adds to the richness of culture.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thor

      Hey ! Great idea "HR" Lady! Maybe the company can give me a language course during my 14 hour days so I can be "more culturally diverse" . And while they are at it, maybe they can give me a course during working hours that teaches me more of my ancestral language too, so that I can have the same cultural diversity as my co-worker, who can't read the English language!

      January 26, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reese

      There is a test that tests for English proficiency, its called the TOEFL. Any student applying from a non-English speaking foreign country has to take it to achieve admittance to most US Universities. How can one hope to govern when all US laws are written in English? Some of these laws are so complex the average English speaking American needs a JD to understand them.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Cashawk

    It is time for our nation to declare an official language.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  7. klec

    In how many other countries would this be acceptable...Norway, Canada, Australia? How about a New Yorker running for office in Mexico? Would THAT be a problem. If you want to eat the fruit of this country, what's wrong with becoming part of the melting pot and not simply moving the old country here? Keeping the culture is great, but this is another country. It's like going to someone's house!

    January 26, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thor

      Do you mean: "When in Rome do as the Romans do." ?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • dakota2000

      Actually, Klec, French AND English ware the official languages of Canada. The country functions very well. We could easily establish two official languages in the US to recognize the reality that many people speak Spanish better than English.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      Deputizing Canada into your argument? Isn't it commonly understood that French-speaking Quebec would secede from the English-speak rest of Canada if it could? There may be arguments in favor of a bilingual U.S., but dysfunctional Canada certainly doesn't help your case.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jesus

    you MUST speak English to be in any office in America

    January 26, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • dakota2000

      is this a commandment Jesus?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thor

      Actually, in most jurisdictions, the ability to speak English is not a requirment. In fact, the only requirement to run for President of the United States is 1) 35 years of age or older, 2) be an American citizen. No where is there a "qualification" other than those two items. It is laughable when people want to know what the "qualifications" of a person running for office is. If a moron with an IQ that doesn't even permit one to feed oneself wants to run, then, they can run.... and be elected!

      January 26, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Thor

    Obviously, none of these people, who are complaining about the virtues of using a familiar language, let's say... uhm... English..., have ever.... ever, ever, come to South Florida. Spanish/Cuban/Guatamalan/Venezuelan/Brazillian/et cetera ... is not only "more comfortable" for most of the inhabitants, it is exclusively the language. If you are an American, who has served in the military so that people can be free here in America, you would be hard pressed to find English as a primary language here. Well, all I can say is "Good luck with that!" when you try to force English down those unappreciative Hispanic throats!

    January 26, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • dancingjellyfish

      Thor, you forgot the ungrateful Haitians, Jamaicans and Dominicans. All of whom hate the "white Devils" who built this Country into the superpowere we were before all this PC BS.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thor

      Key word was unappreciative... but, you are correct, I did think of them.... that's why I put the Latin "et cetera" (Which is real Latin ... by the way!)

      January 26, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Pika

    Even the Mexican lady that comes to my jobsite every morning and sells us $2 burritos speaks pretty good english. I think she learned the language to better her burrito selling business.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thor

      Isn't it funny how they learn English when confronted with things like: "...that item costs....", "... you must pay me....", "I need to file for unemployment/food stamps/ assisted living/ et cetera....", or..... "No officer, I do not comprehend the English language!"

      January 26, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Dunlar

    Me fail English? That's unpossible!

    January 26, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  12. rex edie

    yup.....uh huh uh huh..... gots to at least be able to compreehen some stuff..... though as many here have already mentioned... bush had the mind set an reading skill of a 5 year old.... i was impressed with obama because he was at least articulate.... unfortunately his color has caused any progress to be slow....thanx to the racists that still run the country... (im white) just for those who may want to say something about my opinion....

    January 26, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimbo

      Your opinion is narrow minded and short sighted the same as any racist. You group a large amount of people into the same boat and just assume they don't like someone becuase of their skin color and the fact that most people don't like him because of his policies doesn't even cross your mind. You just like to be divisive just like our president...divide and conquer.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jo

    How did she graduate high school in the United States if she can't proficiently speak English?

    January 26, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Jim

    If a person is a represenative how can they properly represent others if they are not proficient in English. They have to be able to understand the laws in English or something will get lost in the translation.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  15. rufus

    I am job!

    January 26, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
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