SAN LUIS, Arizona (Reuters) - An Arizona city council candidate struck from the ballot over her limited English skills concedes she isn’t fluent in the language but called the legal challenge an abuse of power that could keep her from serving a poor border community where most residents speak only Spanish.
A Yuma County Superior Court judge touched off a furor last week when he disqualified Alejandrina Cabrera, a candidate for city council in San Luis, Arizona, from running for office over what he called a “large gap” between her English proficiency and that required to serve as a public official.
Cabrera’s lawyers have appealed the decision, made in response to a lawsuit by the town’s mayor, and the Arizona Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case on Monday — in time for the city to print ballots the next morning.
“I speak English and I read and I write. I know my English is not proficient but I can understand and I can answer,” Cabrera, a U.S. citizen, told Reuters in an interview. “For San Luis, Arizona, it is enough.”
The controversy has swept up San Luis, a dozy farming town hugging the Arizona-Mexico border, into the incendiary national debate over immigration.
Immigrant rights activists say the court decision misunderstands a community that straddles both sides of the international frontier.
San Luis, Arizona, with its population of roughly 25,000 people, is about 200 miles southwest of Phoenix. It lies just over the 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.
Early each morning, a stream of agricultural workers cross into the United States from Mexico through the San Luis border crossing, bound for the expansive plots of farmland that surround the dusty streets of San Luis.
Late in the afternoon, those workers pile into white buses that carry them back to the border from the fields where they worked harvesting lettuce, alfalfa sprouts and other greens that fill supermarket shelves across the United States.
The activists argue that language-based restrictions are hostile to immigrants and drive a wedge between Latino communities and the rest of American society.
But proponents of making English the sole language of the state say that the country needs a common tongue to promote national unity and cite the country’s decades-old experience of immigration and integration by generations of new Americans.
“People come to America with a lot of different cultures and languages, and we’ve been able to bring people together in a melting pot,” said Robert Vandervoort, Executive Director of ProEnglish, a group that advocates English as the official government language.
“If people are not assimilating, it could lead to fragmentation and conflict,” he added.
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, before she dropped out of the presidential race, said she would fence the entire Mexican border and enforce English as the official language of the U.S. government.
She is not alone in holding that view. All four remaining Republican presidential candidates support making English the official language of government nationwide, Vandervoort said.
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 SB 1070, 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 others remain in place.
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.
“He is the Joe Arpaio of San Luis, Arizona,” Cabrera said of her former schoolmate, referring to the tough-talking sheriff of Maricopa County who has taken a tough stand against illegal immigration.
“He has the power, and uses the power for abuse,” adds Cabrera, a stay-at-home mother for her two children, who has twice led efforts to recall Escamilla from office.
Dressed in a white jacket and white linen pants, Cabrera spoke slowly, choosing her words carefully. She speaks with intensity and passion, but sometimes in the wrong tense, or with the order of words scrambled.
She says that the cost of water has skyrocketed in the city, roughly tripling under Escamilla’s tenure, and that he fired a dozen city employees while padding the paychecks of his inner circle.
Escamilla did not show up for a scheduled interview, and did not respond to e-mail and phone inquiries made afterward.
San Luis City Attorney Glenn Gimbut said Cabrera’s accusations were “garbage,” and the case is fundamentally about what the legal requirement that a public official read, write, and speak English really means.
“If you’re allowed to pick and choose qualifications as you feel like, where does this end?” Gimbut said. “Does this mean Osama bin Laden will now be on our ballot, nevermind that he’s not a resident, nevermind he’s not a citizen, nevermind he’s dead?”
Cabrera’s lawyer warns that the decision by the Yuma County court could create a “modern ‘Jim Crow’ law,” and could result in a flood of legal challenges against Spanish speaking candidates along Arizona’s border, where a mixture of Spanish and English is a kind of lingua franca for many residents.
“Arizona has a reputation in this country for being discriminatory against Latinos - see SB 1070 - and a case like this only furthers that reputation,” attorney Brandon Kinsey said.
“No candidate should be discriminated against for any reason whatsoever - especially when that discrimination leads to an individual being removed from a ballot,” he said.
For her part, Cabrera says her potential constituency speaks mostly Spanish, and the uproar may prevent her from serving those people.
“I like to help the people, help my community,” Cabrera said. “Not only for the Hispanics, but for all race, all people.”
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Tim Gaynor