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US: Candidate with bad English barred

08 February 2012, 17:09

United States - 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.

The court upheld a lower court ruling that barred Alejandrina Cabrera from running in the March 13 Democratic primary for city council in the town of San Luis.

A Yuma County Superior Court judge last week disqualified Cabrera, aged 35, 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 explain why it sided with the lower court judge, but said a written decision would follow.

"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, said in an interview.

"I'll protect the constitution against anyone. But this was government action against an individual," he said.

National unity

The controversy swept San Luis, a sleepy farming town hugging the Arizona-Mexico border, into a national debate over the English language's importance to American national identity.

Proponents of enforcing English as the sole language of 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 320km 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 and Spanish is the primary language.

Minore said it was unlikely his client would appeal.

Broader political debate

"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 can't donate any more time."

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

Cabrera 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.

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

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

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

- Reuters

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