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. Andrewnyuk

    Unless it stated in a law, already tested by a court, there is no way to prevent someone from running for office based on language skills. Next the court someone can't run for office because they're stupid like most members of congress.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • RanXerox

      its is the stated law. so they can prevent her

      February 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Nathan

    I would like to see things taken one step further; if you cannot be bothered to learn the language of the country, you cannot get in. If you love your language and culture so much, stay where you are. Every able minded citizen should be able to recite the national anthem in English, flawlessly, no exceptions (in a perfect world...)

    February 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • nick

      @Nathan: Good thing we don't have a national language in the USA. Are you all really that dense?

      February 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • rad666

      proficiency in English.????-– Odd in that San Luis, Arizona has a link on their site that has everything in Spanish.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • longtooth

      Although I agree with the judicial decision here, I regret to inform you that a lot of third and fourth generation Americans can't recite the national anthem.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Lonnie Wild

    nobody here has any good points for keeping an ESL person off any ballot – good arguments not to vote for the person but to deny access is discriminatory – you don't have to vote for her or anyone for that matter

    February 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • longtooth

      So if you don't speak Spanish and you were born an American citizen, you will need an interpreter to speak with your representative?

      February 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Watson

      I'm sure had this been Miami, FL instead of whatever-this-place-be, AZ, it would not have been any problem. There are a lot of people in Miami, FL, who do not speak or comprehend a word of English, and a non-English-speaking politician at the local level could easily pass muster unchallenged, no questions asked.

      But then, Cuban-Americans generally tend to vote Republican...

      February 9, 2012 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
  4. Tarryl Benedetto

    Here are my thoughts on this:
    1) You should not have to know English to live in America
    2) You SHOULD have to be fluent in English to run for a government position
    3) A court should NOT infringe upon her rights to run for council, considering the U.S. has no official language!
    4) LET THE PEOPLE DECIDE. Do you really think this lady would get any votes if she can't speak English? And if she does get elected, then that's what the people of that city want, that's what they get. Democracy, biatch.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin H

      I began studying languages other than English around age 8 or 9. I continued through University. The problem I have with this whole issue is that when there is a doubt about the proficiency of the individual we have a major problem. What is proficient? What is fluent? How do we know? How do we measure that proficiency? Does the person need to be literate in English at the high school level? The university level? What level is appropriate. In my community people run for and obtain positions on city council who in most cases are university educated and have an excellent command of English. Even foreign born citizens elected here are often university educated. But how do we know if people are fluent enough in English, for instance, to understand what the City Attorney has interpreted in a finding of fact or in a legal opinion? This isn't just a matter for non-English speaking individuals – this is a matter for all those who would run? What are the standards? They aren't spelled out well in the law because the concept of fluency is – well – fluid.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Dave

    The key issue to me is that our laws are written in English. Any public official charged with enforcing those laws, modifying those laws, or complying with those laws should be reasonably proficient in English.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  6. roseyposey

    I agree that the voters should be the aribters of whether or not this woman is capable of representing them. But let's take a step back: What if the voters are not sophisticated enough, or fluent enough in English, to realize that her "confident, strong" Spanish morphs into slower, "perhaps with less conviction" English. So they think they are getting an impassioned advocate, and are actually stuck with someone who hesitates and stumbles in an effort to argue her point. Does anyone hear a lawsuit – as in, the court said she was capable, and now we find out she's not. I'm not sure I agree with not letting her on the ballot, but perhaps the court took into account other issues related to her fluency. Unfortunately, sometimes we have to look at the reality of the world we live in, instead of trying to make decisions from a position of how things ideally should be.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Watson

      >> Does anyone hear a lawsuit – as in, the court said she was capable, and now we find out she's not. <> I'm not sure I agree with not letting her on the ballot, but perhaps the court took into account other issues related to her fluency. <<

      That's none of the court's business. It's the voters' prerogative to vote her out if found inept; the courts have no business to preempt that.

      February 9, 2012 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
  7. Kate

    Typically I stand up for immigration but in this case I agree with those that say if she is a US citizen and capable of running for office that the very least she can do is learn to speak English proficiently.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Qbee37

    In a way it makes sense. City business is surely conducted in English, and a council member cannot adequately participate in contractual and other deliberations if the language cannot be understood and communicated.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  9. VN-English

    Her English sounds terrible when she speaks! I am not a native born American and I migrated from Vietnam when I was 25 years old. I felt pain and hurt the first few years due to lacking of understanding English. I soon realized that if I don't speak English well in the US my life will be screwed! I still have an accent when I speak English but not that terrible! To know another language is a good thing, but English is the official language in the US and obviously in the world too! Learn English and practice hard everyday. Don't be shy and upset when a native tries to correct you!!!! To be successful in the US, you have to speak English proficiently! No other choices! Just look at the life of Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger! His fife amazes me! I am grateful and proud to be an American and thankful to the American people!!!! Way to go! Want to succeed? Learn English. Regardless where you came from and what color you are. Period!

    February 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Engineer

      Glad to have you aboard.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Lorraine

    Why doesn't she spend the time and money to improve her English and then run for office?

    February 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Larry

    Are you all serious? This country's first "official" language was spoken by Native Americans not the English. Or should it be French since they colonized the majority of the South? Or Should it be Italian, or Spanish, or German? This country is a mix of all that is the world. To preclude someone from office due to their English language abilities would mean that most of our ancestors would not be able to hold office. Are you all nuts? Take a step back from your current lives and remember what makes us great.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • mdubbs

      I didn't know that this country (the United States) was founded by a bunch of Native Americans.

      You are a complete moron.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • longtooth

      Excuse me, but our ancestors, ( mine came from France in the late 1700's ) all learned English in order to thrive in this country. I admire this lady's spunk and intelligence, but she needs to learn the language of her chosen country, not the other way around.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jake

      Mdubbs you are correct in that this country was not "founded" by the Native Americans...it was stolen from the Native Americans who were here first and "found" the land our founding fathers "founded" this country on....moron.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  12. American2

    I wonder what her stand on immigration is???

    February 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • mdubbs

      Probably "open the gates and let all mis hermanos y hermanas in!"

      February 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  13. hank

    It's nice to see that anchor babies are like boomerangs and they come back.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Paul

    "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me"..... BUT...... as all of the immigrants of past generations had to do, they had to learn ENGLISH. I have no problem with immigration, but do it right and LEGAL. If you cannot speak and understand the basic concepts of the country's language, then NO... You cannot hold public office.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Denise

    "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" & She failed an English proficiency test.
    Go take some English classes, get a better grasp of the language and run again. No one said you couldn't.
    I question how she gradated High School if her English is that bad.
    I lived in Italy and need to learn to speak the language to function. My friends who have come from other countries and live here have to speak decent English to work. This is America and that is how it is.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
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