Arizona court rules candidate with weak English can be barred

PHOENIX, Feb 8 — Arizona’s Supreme Court yesterday ruled that a candidate for city council with limited English language skills can be kept off the ballot in a largely bilingual town on the Mexico border.

A Yuma County Superior Court judge touched off a furore when he disqualified Alejandrina Cabrera, 35, from running for city council in the town of San Luis over what he called a “large gap” between her English proficiency and that required to serve as a public official.

Alejandrina Cabrera: English not good enough to serve the public. — Reuters picAlejandrina Cabrera: English not good enough to serve the public. — Reuters picIn a brief two-page ruling, the Arizona Supreme Court did not give a reason why it sided with the lower court, but said a written decision would follow “in due course”.

“We’re all burned out and disappointed,” John Minore, a lawyer for Cabrera, told Reuters in an interview. “I’m really surprised. I figured they’d throw this thing out.

“I’ll protect the constitution against anyone. But this was government action against an individual,” he said.

The controversy has swept San Luis, a sleepy farming town hugging the Arizona-Mexico border, into the incendiary national debate over immigration.

Immigrant rights activists called such language-based restrictions hostile to immigrants, potentially driving a wedge between Latino communities and the rest of American society.

Proponents of enforcing English as the sole language of state government said the country needed a common tongue to promote national unity. They cite the immigration and assimilation of generations of new Americans.

“In the narrow matter of law, obviously we were right,” said Glenn Gimbut, city attorney for San Luis, which brought the suit against Cabrera. “But as this has steered into broader political debate, that one is above my pay grade.”

San Luis, with a population of about 25,000, is about 320km southwest of Phoenix and lies just over a steel border fence from San Luis Rio Colorado, in Mexico’s northern Sonora state, with its population of about 200,000.

The two municipalities are considered by many residents as one and the same.

Minore said it was unlikely his client would appeal. “We’d love to but we can’t fund it,” he said. “We’re just small little rural law firms. We can’t afford to go forward. We can’t donate any more time.”

Cabrera, a US citizen born in Yuma, Arizona, declined to comment immediately after the ruling.

Though Cabrera was born in Yuma, she moved to Mexico when she was young and spent much of her childhood there. She returned to Arizona for the last three years of high school, eventually graduating from Yuma’s public Kofa High School.

It was in high school that she met the current town mayor, Juan Carlos Escamilla, who went on to file the lawsuit claiming she has insufficient command of the English language to hold elected office.

Cabrera admitted in the interview with Reuters that she was not completely proficient in English but said she could read it, understand and respond. During the interview she spoke with intensity and passion, but sometimes in the wrong tense, or with the word order scrambled.

The San Luis city clerk ordered the ballots printed without Cabrera’s name after the ruling, said spokeswoman Karin Meza.

The debate comes as several US states have adopted laws cracking down on illegal immigrants.

Alabama passed a measure considered the nation’s toughest in June, 2011, that requires police to detain people they suspect of being in the United States illegally. — Reuters


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