(Reuters) - Arizona's Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that a city council candidate 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 furor last week 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.
In 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."
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 that the country needs a common tongue to promote national unity. They cite the immigration and assimilation by 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 her. "But as this has steered into broader political debate, that one is above my pay grade."
San Luis, with a population of roughly 25,000 people, is about 200 miles southwest of Phoenix and lies just over a steel border fence from San Luis Rio Colorado, in Mexico's northern Sonora state, with a population of roughly 200,000.
The two municipalities are considered by many residents as one and the same community.
Cabrera, a U.S. citizen born in Yuma, Arizona, was not immediately available for comment but was expected to issue a statement later on Tuesday, according to Brandon Kinsey, one of her lawyers.
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 told Reuters in an interview conducted in English last week that Escamilla is "the Joe Arpaio of San Luis, Arizona," referring to the tough-talking sheriff of Maricopa County who has taken a tough stand against illegal immigration.
Cabrera admitted in the interview with Reuters that she is not completely proficient in English but said she can read it, understand and respond. During the interview she spoke with intensity and passion, but sometimes in the wrong tense, or with the order of words scrambled.
The debate comes as several U.S. states have adopted laws cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Alabama passed a measure considered the nation's toughest in June of 2011 which requires police to detain people they suspect of being in the United States illegally.
Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah have also passed immigration crackdowns since Arizona blazed the trail in 2010 with a law that required police to check the status of all those they arrested and suspected of being in the country illegally. That measure has since been blocked by a court, while at least part of others measures remain in place.
The San Luis City Clerk told Reuters on Tuesday that the printing of ballots for the March 13 primary election was being held until the court decision was announced.
Addtional reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Cynthia Johnston and Greg McCune