Arizona woman off ballot after high court agrees her English isn't good enough
Alejandrina Cabrera answers questions about her ability to speak English in Arizona's Yuma County Superior Court.
February 8th, 2012
12:31 PM ET

Arizona woman off ballot after high court agrees her English isn't good enough

A woman trying to run for the San Luis, Arizona, City Council will not appear on the ballot after the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a ruling that her English was not good enough.

Alejandrina Cabrera has been locked in a political battle regarding her proficiency in the English language.  But her story is more than a local election dispute, with possibly widespread implications in a country that prides itself as a melting pot.

In the border town of San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their homes, and 98.7% are of Hispanic origin, according to 2010 U.S. census data.  Most of the people there, by all accounts, speak both English and Spanish.

“I think my English is good enough to hold public office in San Luis, Arizona,” Cabrera told CNN en Español in an interview conducted in Spanish.

“I am not going to help (at the White House). I will be helping here.”

Last month, Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson ruled the woman's name should be taken off the ballot after testimony from linguistics experts and Cabrera. A U.S. citizen born in Yuma, Arizona, Cabrera moved to Mexico and then returned to Yuma for the last three years of  school, graduating from Kofa High School.

Cabrera was able to tell her attorney 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. In his ruling, Nelson said he wanted to be clear he wasn't saying that Cabrera had an "intelligence" issue but felt she should be removed from the ballot because of her lack of proficiency in English.

Cabrera appealed the ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court Tuesday. CNN has not been able to reach Cabrera, her attorneys and city officials for responses to the ruling.

“It is ordered that the trial court's judgment and orders filed January 27, 2012 are affirmed,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch said. “The City Clerk shall not include appellant's name on the March 13, 2012, City Council election ballot. A written decision of this court shall follow in due course.”

At present it's unclear what factored into the justices' decision, but Cabrera's story has caught the attention of people nationwide and sparked a debate about who is best able to represent the people of a certain community.

“When he took my right to be on the ballot, he took away the right of the people who want to vote for me,” Cabrera said after the judge's initial ruling.

As Cabrera's story attracted attention, much of the debate centered on two issues. First, some of CNN's readers said candidates for public office should be able to speak English well. But others argued that the people of San Luis could decide if Cabrera was qualified and choose whether or not to vote for her.

The dispute began when Juan Carlos Escamilla, the mayor of San Luis, said he was concerned that Cabrera might not have the proper grasp of the language for the job. Escamilla filed a lawsuit in December asking a court to determine whether Cabrera's skills qualified her under state law to run for the council seat.

Cabrera admits she isn't the most fluent in English.

Instead of the confident, strong way she speaks in Spanish, Cabrera talks a bit more slowly, and perhaps with less conviction, when she switches to English. She says she can communicate at the level she needs to in English, given where she lives. She grades her English proficiency as a 5 on a scale from 1 to 10.

“I am a very honest so I can tell you I’m not fluid in English, but I do understand it. I can read a letter. I can read a book,” Cabrera said. “Right now I have a private tutor helping me improve my English.”

In 2006, Arizona passed a law that made English the official language of the state. Nearly a century before, 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 attorneys argued in court that her disqualification was unfair and may be unconstitutional, saying there is no standard for a specific level of proficiency for a City Council candidate.

“Unbelievable,” John Minore, one of Cabrera's attorneys told the Yuma Sun after the high court ruling. “This is a fine example of judicial activism. Arizona now has a English standard to be on a ballot but doesn't tell you what that standard is. It's amazing that people in government who are in power can spend taxpayer money to keep people off the ballot. This is Hispanics keeping Hispanics off the ballot, compliments of the San Luis City Council.”

The court battle is part of a growing discussion about English in a country where people come from a variety of backgrounds. During a recent presidential debate, GOP candidates said that English should be the official U.S. language and should be the only one taught in school.

Bob Vandevoort of the advocacy group ProEnglish said that the country would be more cohesive if English were made the standard language in government.

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

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 resources to learn English. He said there are long lines to get into classes in several cities, with so many people trying to learn English.

But Vargas argues a candidate doesn'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."

It's unclear what Cabrera's next move may be, but there may still be one way for her to run for the San Luis City Council: as a write-in candidate.

Nevertheless, Cabrera's battle will surely advance the debate about language in America and politics.

Let us know what you think about the issue in the comments below. Do you think the right decision was made?

soundoff (2,004 Responses)
  1. Dale

    “I think my English is good enough to hold public office in San Luis, Arizona,” Cabrera told CNN en Español in an interview conducted in Spanish.
    F'ing comedy!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
  2. NOBS21

    I can understand her position. She is a U.S. Citizen. Born / Naturalized Citizen. But that doesnt give her carte blanche to be on a ballot to be voted in. I wouldnt want someone that didnt have the full grasp of the English language to be making decisions on my behalf. She says she can read English ? Then why cant she speak it ? There are 26 english letters (in Actually the Latin / Roman) alphabet. There are 30 Spanish letters in the Spanish Alphabet. Certain letters are pronounced differently and means something differently than if it was used in another word or sentence. So, she doesnt have the grasp on the English language, because she can read it in the English version versus the Spanish version because that is the only way she knows how to read it. So, more than likely she would misinterpret what she was reading in English.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Comonsns

      She cant speak it because she has NO DESIRE TOO.....these Mexicans are doing nothing but trying to turn america into Mexico....if you cant see that, then you arent very bright

      February 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Harry Tuttle

      Yea, and I don't want patent morons on the ballot either, but have you seen the Republican candidates for president?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack

      @Comonsns: "She cant speak it because she has NO DESIRE TOO.....these Mexicans are doing nothing but trying to turn america into Mexico....if you cant see that, then you arent very bright"

      There are 10 grammatical errors in the above post. Can you find them?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Andy Smith

    I can't talk or hear, but I'm an American citizen of voting age. Can I run for political office in this country? If you say yes, what's the difference between this lady and myself?

    February 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      You could at least write in English. This lady is worthless. Go clean a bank or something.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy Smith

      Nice argument (sarcasm). We don't even know if she can write in English and there are apps for translating languages.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • JustOne

      Understanding

      February 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      so maybe she should get one of these "apps" and learn the language. Then she could run without any issues.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • karma

      The difference is you can still communicate in English. Who can even show that this supposed 85% she would represent are even here legally and can vote? Prove it. And if your state says that English is the official language, and you can't communicate in English, then you probably wouldn't be on the ballot either.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Christine

      You do not want to rely on translation apps for political work, or any work. That would create a huge mess. Those apps are a joke. The only trustworthy technique would be to hire a translator. An easier one would be to learn English. How do you even live and hold a job in the US, and understand the complexities of the laws, without a good grasp of English.
      BTW, I am a first-generation legal immigrant.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy Smith

      The question isn't whether the 85% of the population she represents are legal (not much test of that anywhere else, so it is discriminatory to those folks to single them out for that question), but she says she can read a book, so she understands English. If the state makes English the official language, and I'm guessing you're of the school that state laws should trump Federal laws, can the city make a law that there's no official language? Would that trump the state? If her city doesn't have an official language, doesn't that trump the state of Arizona's laws? She's not running for state wide office, just city.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy Smith

      I'm a first generation American as well, but I've been in neighborhoods where you don't have to speak English to get around (San Fran Chinatown, Dearborn Michigan, etc), so it's quite easy to live here and not have a "good" grasp of English (which is such a relative term because I know Americans that don't understand several commonly used words), but yet, nobody is questioning if they have a "good" grasp of English.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Just G

      Well- to answer your question, I believe ADA is the difference between you/us and her. 😉

      February 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Bruce

    So who gets to determine what proficiency level is "adequate" when there is no objective standard in place? Sounds like a formula for ultimate corruption to me.

    Here, fill out this proficiency test and I'll grade it. If I deem you to be proficient, I'll allow you to run for office. If not, then too bad, so sad. What criteria am I using in the grading? Now that's proprietary, because I'm a proficiency-test company and can't divulge those trade secrets.

    But if you want to purchase my proficiency training program I can pretty much guarantee you'll pass the test...

    February 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      not sure if serious.....

      February 8, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bruce

      Chris, I deem your proficiency in English lacking. You are not allowed on the ballot. You should purchase my proficiency training class!

      February 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Christine

      Take the TOEFL.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bruce

      @Christine: That's my point. The TOEFL is a federally-regulated objective standardized test that was not used in this case. Cabrera was not allowed on the ballot because a judge "tested" her proficiency himself, without any reference to an objective standard.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Taysha

      Some versions of the TOEFL include a verbal section in which you are basically invited to converse with 1-3 judges. It's a very subjective part of the test. Having someone judge your verbal proficiency (a judge in this case) is very similar to that.

      If she is unable to answer or understand simple questions, I would say that qualifies for "not proficient"

      February 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. David

    George W. Bush could barely form an intelligible sentence in the English language...if he could get away with it, why punish others?

    February 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lady Velvet

      Touche. Not that I actually agree with you, but you do make a valid point -

      February 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cadiz

      I would say that his ability to form a sentence in the English language is better than yours.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • peacekeeper

      Don't be ridiculous. If you have a valid argument, fine, let's hear it.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • JustOne

      Yeah, and Obama cant speak without a teleprompter

      February 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lar

      George Bush couldn't even form an intelligent thought!

      February 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      Nuke-kuh-lar.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
  6. BK

    WAY RIGHT DECISION...My in-laws came to this country from Europe, and they learned English. They spoke their native language at home, but wanted their family to be AMERICANS, and felt the best way was to integrate fully into American culture, including English. Was it hard for them YES, was it the right decision YES.....If you want to live here, learn the language and use it.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Well said. How did she even get a high school diploma without being able to speak, write or read English?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bruce

      Chris, why don't you ask Kofa High School that question? They probably have teachers who speak Spanish and can teach in Spanish and can assess the proficiency of students in the subjects required to be taught for a high school diploma without needing the students to be "proficient" (as defined haphazardly and not objectively by any standard by a judge) in the English language.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Fillo

    What a great argument for making English the official language.
    BTW, Spanish was my first language.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      I really wish we would.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lady Velvet

      Yeh, it's about time -

      February 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Sally

    This controversial case exemplfies modern day America and our multi-cultural society. Speaking a language reflects the ability to comprehend written and oral command of that language. Public Office dictates the ability to communicate with all citizens in your district... ability to understand/comprehend all bills and proposals to be voted on (in the given language in which they are written). Perhaps a comprehension test would be a viable alternative to a vote or a Judge.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      Nothing controversial about it.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jr

    Change starts with ripples. I hope that if she really wants to make change, she enrolls in esl classes at the local jr college or community center. This would show her community that if you believe you will succeed.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Yup. My guess is she'll be cleaning offices at said community college rather than taking classes and learning English.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      No Chris, she'll just cash her welfare check......

      February 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Lady Velvet`

    Thank you a million times over, Judge Nelson!! This doesn't happen often enough. I went to sign up for a clinical trial, and the woman there had such a strong accent that I could only understand half of what she said. As a former student of linguistics, I am well aware that this comes down to pure LAZINESS and must not be excused on the basis of discrimination or anything else.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ed

      Former student of linguistics?
      Look, some people just can't overcome their accent.
      It's easy for you to say because you speak English natively, I assume.
      Try learning any other language and speaking it without an accent, and maybe you'll understand
      some people's ordeals.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack

      Lady Velvet`: "Thank you a million times over, Judge Nelson!! This doesn't happen often enough. I went to sign up for a clinical trial, and the woman there had such a strong accent that I could only understand half of what she said. As a former student of linguistics, I am well aware that this comes down to pure LAZINESS and must not be excused on the basis of discrimination or anything else."

      There are four grammatical errors in the above post. Can you find them?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
  11. jweller

    I cautiously agree with the judges ruling.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  12. gTy

    Why aren't conservatives yelling, "Activist judge! Why not allow her to run and let the people decide if she should represent them?" Oh. Because they agree with this decision.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • JustOne

      Yeah, in this case its the libs yelling "activist judge"

      February 8, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  13. joe

    Plain and simple. You want to run for a public office in The United States of America? You better speak the language, which many people see to forget is English, well enough to be understood AND not come across as a flippin' idiot. I applaud the court's decision.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack

      joe: "Plain and simple. You want to run for a public office in The United States of America? You better speak the language, which many people see to forget is English, well enough to be understood AND not come across as a flippin' idiot. I applaud the court's decision."

      There are six grammatical errors in the above post. Can you find them?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Ed

    The woman said she's trying to improve with the help of a tutor. Also, we don't know if the people of her community want to vote for her. What's wrong with using a translator?
    I don't understand why those individuals don't want a "multilanguage" nation.
    As the saying goes, "haters gonna hate."

    February 8, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • LV7

      Who is going to pay for the translator? And why should the other council members have to accept the slowed pace of meetings because one person needs a translator? I agree with the law and the ruling completely!

      February 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  15. JerseyTechGuy

    Good! This is America. Speak English!

    Now if we could make English a requirement for other jobs and for drivers licenses, etc. we would be getting somewhere.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • silverback

      Well JerseyTechGuy,
      "tech-nically" this is North Ameica as is Canada, should Canadians be required to speak English as well? And what of South America, should they also be required to speak English?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
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