(Reuters) - Arizona’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a city council candidate with limited English skills could be kept off the ballot in a predominately Spanish-speaking town on the Mexico border, and her lawyers said they lacked resources to appeal.
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 judge, but said a written decision would follow “in due course.”
“We’re all burned out and disappointed. I‘m really surprised. I figured they’d throw this thing out,” John Minore, an attorney for Cabrera, told Reuters in an interview.
“I’ll protect the constitution against anyone. But this was government action against an individual,” he said.
The controversy over the upcoming election has swept San Luis, a sleepy farming town hugging the Arizona-Mexico border, into the incendiary national debate over just how important the English language is to American national identity.
Proponents of enforcing English as the sole language of state government argue the country needs a common tongue to promote national unity, citing a long tradition of linguistic assimilation by generations of new Americans.
Immigrant rights activists say such language-based restrictions are hostile to immigrants, potentially driving a wedge between Latino communities and the rest of American society.
San Luis, a town of roughly 25,000 people about 200 miles southwest of Phoenix, lies just over a steel border fence from the much larger 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.
Asked if they intended to file another appeal, Minore said such a move appeared unlikely because of financial hurdles.
“We’d love to but we can’t fund it. We’re just small little rural law firms. We can’t afford to go forward,” Minore said. “We have mortgages to pay and families to feed. We can’t donate any more time.”
Cabrera, a U.S. citizen born in Yuma, Arizona, declined to comment immediately after the ruling, but an attorney for the candidate said she would speak to reporters on Wednesday.
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 had insufficient command of the English language to hold elected office.
Cabrera described Escamilla in an interview conducted in English last week as “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 acknowledged to Reuters that her command of English was not perfect 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 after Arizona blazed the trail in 2010 with a law requiring police to check the status of those they arrested and suspected were in the country illegally.
Alabama passed a measure considered the nation’s toughest in June 2011 requiring police to detain people they suspect of being in the United States illegally. Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah have also passed immigration crackdowns.
The Arizona measure has since been blocked by a court, while at least part of others measures remain in place.
“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.”
The city clerk immediately ordered the ballots for the March 13 primary be printed without Cabrera’s name following the ruling, said Karin Meza, a city spokeswoman.
Addtional reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Cynthia Johnston and Greg McCune