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. Michael

    This person should be on the ballot regardless of which language she speaks even if she might be deaf or mute and speak none. The voters in her election should be the ones to decide if her English is good enough to represent them or not. The greatness of America calls for no less.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:23 am | Report abuse |
  2. bess moore

    Why doesn't she speak English? She lives in the U.S. Go live in Mexico if you don't want to learn English.Geezz! !

    February 9, 2012 at 4:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Lise

      Not only "lives in" but "born in" – to my mind now, there is NO excuse whatsoever – I was undecided before I knew this, now I am not.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Liz

      My Cuban grandmother spoke fluent English. Under stress she lapsed into Spanish. Perfect English is not a citizenship requirement despite your wishes. You are an amazing bigot.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:55 am | Report abuse |
  3. The Breaker of Walls

    Keep in mind everyone has the right to free speech no matter the level of ignorance displayed... Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor and please tell me if anyone understood has english. It's a right of the voters let them choose. Soon enough all of our rights will be relinquished if this kind of stuff continue.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:52 am | Report abuse |
    • calmanalysis

      The issue is not whether people could understand your accent, it is whether you can speak English. Arnold can speak and understand English just fine; he does have a heavy accent though. This is a different issue.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Realitybites

      Breaker,
      Your post is absolute nonsense.

      February 9, 2012 at 7:07 am | Report abuse |
  4. The Breaker of Walls

    Keep in mind everyone has the right to free speech no matter the level of ignorance displayed... Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor and please tell me if anyone understood his English. It's a right of the voters let them choose. Soon enough all of our rights will be relinquished if this kind of stuff continue.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:53 am | Report abuse |
  5. Randy GarnerRandy Garner

    What about the other 2 percent. I'm sorry, I'm all for immigrants issues but this is a no-brainer. You must speak English to be in our Government, I think that is only fair to the rest of America and is obviously already State Law. You don't like it? Work to get it changed. That's how we do it here.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:13 am | Report abuse |
  6. Gedwards

    "CNN has not been able to reach Cabrera, her attorneys and city officials for responses to the ruling."
    =======================
    Perhaps CNN en Español should have given it a try.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:19 am | Report abuse |
    • state university student

      Yep, CNN en Espanol already got their exclusive with her. Better if she goes with Telemundo.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  7. craig

    I'd sure love to see the legal basis for his decision. She is, apparently, a US citizen, and if she meets the local residency requirements, I seriously doubt the court has a basis for make thing judgement. Let the voters decide. They might screw it up...as voters have on many occasions, but that's their right...and hers too, I think.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Scalawag

      I agree. In a democracy "the People" not the courts, decide in a free election and have the right to screw up and learn from it.

      February 9, 2012 at 7:12 am | Report abuse |
  8. smc

    The courts should not be deciding who We The People get to vote for. Once they start doing that, we are no better than countries like Iran.

    Anyone who looked at Bush's history of failed businesses and competency of the English language (or lack thereof) knew he wasn't qualified to be President of a country either, but we allowed the incompetent masses vote for him anyhow.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:26 am | Report abuse |
  9. JC

    It is a political move, everybody knows language crap is just an excuse. She has made it this far to be there. Violation of Freedom of Speech. Overthrow the lame committee.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:31 am | Report abuse |
  10. unowhoitsme

    If she's representing 'the people', English is required.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:38 am | Report abuse |
  11. Liz

    The voters should decide if she's suitable for the job, not the courts. If they are okay with her English then cool.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:47 am | Report abuse |
  12. LeRoy

    Articulate, enunciate. Then you can run for office.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:50 am | Report abuse |
  13. Ira

    She's already not qualified–she's hardly even lived here.

    February 9, 2012 at 6:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Kyllya

      So now it's not just a matter of being born in America, you have to make sure your parents don't take you anywhere out of the country to live. Otherwise, you're not American enough. With this way of thinking to be honest, I don't know why anyone would want to move back once they got out.

      February 9, 2012 at 7:07 am | Report abuse |
  14. Joy

    John Minore, one of Cabrera's attorneys told the Yuma Sun after the high court ruling. “...It's amazing that people in government who are in power can spend taxpayer money to keep people off the ballot."

    Alright, so Mr. Minore makes a fair point about taxpayer money spent to keep this individual off the ballot. My question is; How much taxpayer money would have been spent to provide an interpreter for every City Council meeting that this person would attend?

    February 9, 2012 at 6:25 am | Report abuse |
  15. maglor

    Much as people hates standardized testing, I believe this is a case where such a test can be used, since millions of people takes SAT, ACT, and/or GRE every year. Let there be a minimum score required from one of those test in order to run for the office. Demanding score of about 500 in SAT/GRE Verbal is not too big a hurdle to overcome, and we should expect those in the office to demonstrate good competency in their skill and knowledge, lest we elect someone underqualified to lead other people.

    February 9, 2012 at 6:52 am | Report abuse |
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