Do Politicians Need to Know English? Spanish-Speaking Politician in Arizona Barred From Ballot


A candidate running for city council in the border town of San Luis, Ariz., was removed from the ballot last week for lacking sufficient English proficiency. She is now appealing the decision to the state's supreme court. This unprecedented case illustrates the need for pragmatic approaches to dealing with challenges of bilingualism.  

A lower court judge last week ruled that the candidate, Alejandrina Cabrera (a U.S. citizen) had English skills too low to adequately perform the position of city councilmember. Some supported the judge's decision, arguing that Cabrera is clearly ineligible to serve on a council whose primary operating language is English, while others have argued that rulings like this only serve to further marginalize immigrant communities.

Overall, this case has undoubtedly engendered a polarizing debate while raising the legitimate question of how precisely how much English proficiency should be required of our public officials. Yet it should also raise a discussion on the following essential issue: To what extent should local governing bodies reflect and be responsive to the ever-changing nature of the constituencies they are meant to represent?  

In a town like San Luis, where more than 90% of residents are Spanish-speaking, should city officials be expected to command the same level of English as public officials representing solely English-speaking populations? Cabrera's own testimony alluded to this vexing underlying question when she stated, "I speak little English. But my English is fine for San Luis.” And according to another resident who put it even more directly, San Luis is a place where “It’s strange to speak English.”

Pragmatism and nuance are needed to explore solutions for such a divisive and complex issue as this.

Although Cabrera has recently appealed the decision to the state's supreme court, it remains to be seen whether the court will make a ruling in time before ballots are printed and elections take place. While much discussion has surrounded these developments, it is also valuable to consider some alternative approaches that could have been taken to resolve this challenge.  

Given the lack of a precise definition for English fluency in the state's law, would it be more appropriate to leave the decision of Cabrera's eligibility to run for council up to a public vote via referendum, instead of the courts?

There could also have been the possibility of allowing Cabrera to run for office and then having the city hire an interpreter if she was elected to help her fulfill the duties of the position as needed. After all, if defendants with limited English proficiency have a constitutional right to an interpreter in criminal cases, couldn't the same logic of this constitutional right even more easily be extended to someone seeking to have a positive impact in their community via public office, instead of defending themselves from criminal charges?

While it remains to be seen how Cabrera's case will ultimately be addressed, this episode undoubtedly highlights some of the genuine challenges to immigration integration that are likely to inevitably repeat in the future, given America's unprecedentedly multicultural landscape.  

The recent controversy surrounding presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich's remarks on English as "the language of prosperity" in stark contrast to presumably Spanish as "the language of the ghetto" reminds us that inflammatory rhetoric will only get us so far. Ultimately, bilingualism is becoming a necessary reality, so it behooves us to treat it as such and respond with pragmatic solutions to the nuanced challenges that will inevitably arise from it.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons