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. BeckFastPaws

    She's BORN in this country, and doesn't know English? Well, lady, if you can't be bothered to know the language most of this country speaks, the language required as a secondary language in every other technological country, the language required for computers and air travel, then you are not to dumb, you are too ignorant and apathetic to be a leader of any sort.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bryan

    This woman is a textbook example of what an Anchor Baby is. She was born in the USA, then she was raised in Mexico. When she wanted to go to high school, she unfairly took advantage of our USA school system. Her language, political views and loyalty are of foreign interests. SHE IS NOT A UNITED STATES CITIZEN, SHE IS A MEXICAN WITH A BIRTH CERTIFICATE SHE DOES NOT DESERVE.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • MexAm201

      Bravo! You are so correct. When will people get it?

      February 9, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Terry

    USA should be a English only!

    February 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. JOSE0311USMC

    DISCRIMINATION ???LOL. EVERYTHING IS DISCRIMINATION WHEN IT COMES TO ILLEGALS...RACIAL PROFILING,,,,I BET SHE IS ILLEGAL ? ANYONE ASK HER ?? OOPS POLICE IS NOT ALLOW TO ASK..WHAT IF SHE WAS A TERRORISTS ? HOW IS POLICE GOING TO KNOW ?? SOMETHING THINK ABOUT...OBAMA AND DEMOCRATS ARE MAKING AMERICA LESS SAFE...

    February 8, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Bryan

    THE ANCHOR BABIES ARE COMING

    February 8, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • JOSE0311USMC

      OH, SHE IS AN ANCHOR BABY ? WE SHOULD GET RID OF THAT LAW...CROSS THE BORDER , HAVE A BABY AND PARENTS WON'T BE DEPORTED...

      February 8, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Ken Andrews

    Arizona = Mississippi of the 21st Century.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Susan62509

      The people in Mississippi could speak and understand and their protest signs were written in English. That was a color blind issue in those days and not relative to the English language.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Carmen Rosa

    Here is an adult anchor baby, I can see her English is poor, but her Spanish is equally poor.
    I am a medical translator, Linguist that in the family we are fluent in 5 languages,outside our home English is our language.
    It is about time that 3 things change:
    That we all carry ID, like any other country.
    The law granting citizenship to children of illegals is discarted.
    English is made the oficial language in the USA.
    Who wants in a position a person that cant writte ,read or speak the language?
    Call your Senators , a Bill is waiting .

    February 8, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • So sad you work as an Interpreter...I will never trust u, woman.

      friends like you who need enemies. The sad fact is that attempts to reform our immigration system are being sabotaged by organizations fueled by hate.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jennifer Rodriguez

      *discarded
      *official
      *write
      *can't
      (This doesn't include the grammatical errors. Who wants as a medical translator someone who can't spell?)

      She has the right to run and people have the right not to vote for her. If all politicians were required to take a test of their competence before they could run, we'd have very few candidates.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Permutation

    " ...But others argued that the people of San Luis could decide if Cabrera was qualified and choose whether or not to vote for her." This statement is the heart of the issue. I would hazard a guess that the US Supreme Court will likely find that the voters should be able to decide, but who knows these days. Statements about who should speak what language or dialect are irrelevant. Besides, many of my fellow southern brethren supposedly speak English, yet they're hard to understand.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. dogwater

    It is about time something good came about being American and English speaking in this country...

    February 8, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
  10. dogwater

    Good!

    February 8, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. JOSE0311USMC

    I'M A SHAME TO BE AN AMERICAN....CHINA STICK UP FOR THEIR PEOPLE BY DEFENDING THEIR BORDERS...THE U.S. THE RICHES COUNTRY CAN'T SECURE ONE BORDER..SAD.....MOVING TO CANADA WOODS LIVE OFF THE LAND...AMERICA IS BEING INVADED BY MEXICO AND BY SOUTH AMERICA AND POLITICIANS DON'T SEEN TO CARE...SAD...

    February 8, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carmen Rosa

      South America is too far. Canada has granted more benefits and rights to foreign people than canadians , specially native Canadians.
      Rules have to change by changing laws.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alexander

      I think you meant ashamed* . Unless you are a shame. Which would be rather unfortunate.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
  12. gmwalton

    I'm pretty sure you have to speak English Mexico to hold public offife

    February 8, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Marcelino

    R-Garcia & any of you Morons taking His Side,

    You're a disgrace to you're own People. Try to remember that California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida and Parts of Oklahoma Were once a part of Mexico! The majority of the people that live in those States are of Mexican Descent, Hence the reason they Speak Spanish. Idiot!

    February 8, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Susan62509

      Surprise....this is 2012 and the past is done and gone. What does the U.S. offer that Mexico doesn't? Why do the Mexicans want to come to the U.S.? Figure that one out and you'll receive an A+. If Hispanic's defend and support Mexico, then protest in that country for change and not the U.S.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
  14. drwhoo

    no bueno

    February 8, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. violette

    She will not be able to represent her people in the meetings which I assume are conducted in English. If her English skills are so poor that she does not understand what happens in the meeting how will she conduct the business of the meeting? How will that benefit anyone? Unless she has a UN style translator and who is paying for that? I think this is really at the heart of the issue. BTW, don't even try to call me racist. I am of mixed heritage, including Mexican and I do speak Spanish.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
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