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. Chime Nangchen

    There is no intent here to disparage her willingness to be of service to the American people. However, anyone holding any public office in America should be required to be fluent and I mean uncatigorically fluent in the official language of America which is English. Perhaps there will be a time in the future when her English skills improve and she can reconsider running for public office.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • EMcK

      Really? Please cite the statute which defines English as the official language of the United States.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hey , Chinese man....

      Chinese man how ignorant you are, need to learn your geography better . AMERICA is not a country but rather a CONTINENT. i guess all the dog you eat made you mind confused.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chinese man....

      How ignorant you are, need to learn your geography better . AMERICA is not a country but rather a CONTINENT. i guess all the dog you eat made you mind confused.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  2. WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE NOW....

    When white Europeans came here years ago to occupy against the wishes of Native American’s lands, they did not speak their language but by force they stayed in this continent, what difference does it make now.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jazzy

      The difference is we are not Native Americans and we will not let someone else take over our country. We can and will defend our nation successfully despite the efforts of CNN, liberals, and anyone else who wants to F with us.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • nazman

      That made no sense

      February 9, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
  3. David Aeglye

    NO lady! YOU are dead wrong!!! Learn English!

    February 9, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Ven

    so people who speak only American Sign language can't hold office either?

    February 9, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      seriously? I guess the rest of us should learn sign language, and spanish and chinese and wahtever else so we can communicate. Get a grip!

      February 9, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. JAMISON

    As Liberal as I am, I must agree with this decision.
    Learn our English language so you can speak coherently when defending our rights.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jeff

    The interview was conducted in Spanish, enough said!

    February 9, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jazzy

    Arizona will be part of Mexico soon anyways, so let her run. CNN, other liberal news outlets, open border supporters, illegals, etc all want Mexico to reclaim their land taken away by the evil Americans.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Deep North

    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. If the people do this, then all else is a moot issue and she will prevail.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arnold Schwarzenegger did not Speak Englsh

      Arnold Schwarzenegger's English is terrible...
      Ex governor of California and nobody asked him to go back to Austria, too bad because he ruined California , well, lets give this lady a chance , she can not be worse than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or this is a race issue, I am afraid it is a race issue and not a language issue.

      February 9, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • JT

      "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."

      If you could read and comprehend English yourself, you would know that this is not a race issue. Does Juan Carlos Escamilla sound like a white dude to you?

      Race has nothing to do with it. It is very, very simple: the woman cannot speak English, and the business of government is conducted in English.

      February 9, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      No, DeepNorth. You are wrong.
      Even if she is the prevailing "write-in", the results will be nullified and let me tell you why:
      Her argument that “When he took my right to be on the ballot, he took away the right of the people who want to vote for me,”
      People do NOT have an unfettered right to vote for whomever thy choose. There are LAWs regarding "qualifications"; i.e., some (most) states have laws that preclude violent felons and child molesters from holding office; thus, even if a child molester is "written in", the results will be nullified...same thing re "citizenship/residency" issues.
      Here, Arizona has a law that says, to be qualified, there has to be a proficiency in English. THIS is so that the public servant can not only converse with his/her constituents, but also with other members of the governing bodies.
      Again – NO "unfettered" right to run for office. She simply does not qualify under the law.

      February 9, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Woodzilla007

      An American born in Arizona who has considerable difficulty speaking English... WTF is this world coming to???

      February 9, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jazzy

    Actually, Al Sharpton was able to run for office. So this is all a bunch of nonsense. If that illiterate SOB can run, anybody should be able to run.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  10. bribarian

    If I went to China and demanded everyone to speak english i wonder what their reaction would be

    February 9, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      More Chinese speak English then there are Americans.

      February 9, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Russian lady speaks better English than all of u

      if youi went to china, they would eat you there, because in China they eat dogs.

      February 9, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arnold Schwarzenegger did not Speak Englsh

      don't worry the Chinese people will have you for dinner. Dogs are a good meal there.

      February 9, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dakota2000

      I have met chinese who have never been to the US and speak english better than some Americans.
      So... your point is?

      February 9, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Ray from Austin

    How can we expect these people to learn to read good and speak good if they can't even fit inside the building?

    February 9, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pablo

      It's "read WELL and speak WELL." And your semi-illiterate comment is supposed to address not someone not speaking English well enough?

      February 9, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • BlueSteel

      You are so right, Ray.

      February 9, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bagz

      Zoolander quote. I approve.

      February 9, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Rick1948

    This is a lot of court driven BS designed to keep a minority person off the ballot. If she can't speak English well enough to hold office, the voters will decide that by not electing her.

    February 9, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      You are so right. It is the people's decision not the courts.

      February 9, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • JT

      The mayor who got the ball rolling on this is himself Hispanic, so your argument is invalid. In reality this is a simple, practical matter. The woman simply cannot communicate with the rest of government. If you cannot speak the language in which your job is conducted, you cannot perform that job. Simple, obvious, inarguable.

      February 9, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • JT

      "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."

      That's right up there ^^^ in the article that you either didn't read or didn't comprehend.

      February 9, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Wyvern W

    The problem I'm having is the lack of a definite legal standard to decide whose English is "good enough" to qualify for a ballot for elected office. Is one misused word sufficient to disqualify a candidate? If that's not the standard, then what is? It seems like this decision sets a precedent that can be abused. I'm sure I've heard candidates use English that I don't consider "good enough". Can they be disqualified?

    February 9, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Russian lady speaks better English than all of u

    bunch of nonsense here, I know many languages and feel good about it, but many people in this country can hardly speak English. Shame on you all.

    February 9, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Russian lady speaks better English than all of u

    Learn Russian so you all guys can get a mail order Russian women.

    February 9, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
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