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English-Only Laws: The Hispanic Poll Tax

| February 4, 2012

Careful how you answer.

By Angel Castillo Jr.

In a controversial move, an Arizona judge recently disqualified a U.S. citizen of Hispanic descent from seeking a city council seat on language grounds. The judge disqualified the candidate after determining, initially “in less than 30 seconds,” that her command of the English language was deficient.

At stake is a four-year term on the city council of San Luis, Az., a Mexico border town. San Luis has close to 26,000 residents, of whom 99 percent are Hispanic, predominantly of Mexican ancestry. Both English and Spanish are routinely spoken during city council meetings, and the city’s web site is maintained in both languages. The city did not include English proficiency among the requirements to run for a city council seat.

The disqualified candidate is a San Luis political activist, Alejandrina Cabrera, a Spanish speaker born in Arizona. Ms. Cabrera, a mother of two, is a graduate of Kofa High School in nearby Yuma. She moved with her family to Mexico when she was five years old, and returned when she was 18. She admits her English is limited, but argues that she is fluent enough to serve the interests of her community at San Luis City Hall.

Twice last year, Ms. Cabrera circulated unsuccessful petitions to recall San Luis Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla. In December, the mayor filed a lawsuit alleging Ms. Cabrera did not meet the legal requirement that certain officeholders be proficient in English.

florida voices columnists flaglerlive

Ever since Arizona became our 48th state, it has required that state office holders be able “to read, write, speak, and understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without the aid of an interpreter.” The law does not define how, exactly, “sufficiently well” should be measured. Like Florida in 1988, Arizona voters in 2006 made English the official language of their state by constitutional amendment.

After “less than 30 seconds” of her testimony at a preliminary hearing, Chief Judge John Nelson of the Yuma County Superior Court declared Ms. Cabrera’s English skills inadequate. He then ordered a language expert, Dr. William G. Eggington of Brigham Young University to test her English proficiency. After the tests, Dr. Eggington testified that Ms. Cabrera has “basic survival level” English language skills, below what he believes necessary to handle city council business. Judge Nelson then ordered Cabrera’s name stricken from the March 13 ballot.

The court-ordered testing of Ms. Cabrera’s language skills is reminiscent of the “literacy tests” once used by southern whites to prevent black Americans from voting and gaining political power. Judge Nelson likely violated Ms. Cabrera’s federal constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. She has appealed the judge’s ruling, so the dispute is not over yet. However, it would be better for the democratic process if the voters in San Luis, rather than the judges, decide whether Ms. Cabrera speaks English well enough to serve at city hall.

Fortunately there is a silver lining in this controversy for Ms. Cabrera. At least she is not a Mexican immigrant living in Arizona.

Angel Castillo, Jr., a former reporter and editor for the New York Times and The Miami Herald, and a columnist for Florida Voices, practices employment law in Miami. He can be reached here.

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15 Responses for “English-Only Laws: The Hispanic Poll Tax”

  1. jespo says:

    Really? Her right to freedom of speech was neither abridged nor restrained, and she is offered equal protection under the laws cited in the article. How can representation be fulfilled without a proper understanding of the common language of the country within which she is seeking to be a representative of a constituency? If Ms Cabrera thinks that passable english is sufficient then she understands neither politics nor the communication process. Also, to allude that her plight, if it may be called that, is comparible to Jim Crow literacy laws and poll taxes meant to intentionally disenfranchise poor minorites from engaging in their own society politically is an affront to those who suffered under such laws. If she truly wants to serve she should spend the next year of her life gaining a greater command of the english language, both written and oral, thereby bringing her ability to serve in harmony with her willingness to serve. Five year olds can learn another language, i’m sure she can as well.

  2. Oneofthe10%whovoted. says:

    No, she is not an immigrant. But ALL of her constituents have the right to understand her. She has been in this country long enough to learn the language.

  3. palmcoaster says:

    Mrs. Cabrera needs to learn English and then run again to serve her community as her command of the Spanish language alone is not enough because she will have to deal with the laws of our country in English.
    My advise to her is; as her constituents will be waiting for her to improve her English, they will elect her even in larger majority given her effort to achieve the language command needed to properly represent them. I sure believe that with 12 months or less, of 4 hours a day intensive English language oral and written training, Mrs. Cabrera will be ready to serve her community then.

  4. Doug Chozianin says:

    There are 6,909 languages spoken on earth (Wikipedia).

    Who is going to supply me with all those dictionaries if people who spoke them all decided to cross the Mexican border today (an estimated 10,000 illegals cross EVERY DAY) and run for office (except for US President, of course(?)).

    When France becomes bilingual, I’ll consider allowing non-English speaking people to be elected officials. (After ‘adequat consideration’, I’d still reject them.)

  5. roco says:

    English is the language of our United States and should be the ONLY language spoken in public.. Then everyone will know what’s being said..

  6. tjm says:


  7. Dave Francis says:

    It’s my hope that Mitt Romney sticks to his guns, should he gain acceptance by the voters for president? Any time before the presidential election, whether Gubernatorial, State, County or local election, without revising of federal election laws every citizen-voter must be committed to fighting voter fraud. Do not believe that voter fraud is not proliferating across the country, as Democratic appointed ACORN has shown otherwise? The Left will do anything to implode any of the Republican chances of winning the presidency, including the backing of illegal registrations of non citizens voting. Be alarmed, because there is every possibility of forged absentee ballots or even non-citizens filling in registrations. All candidates whether Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul need to be aware of the vicious other side who don’t play fair? Mitt Romney has one of NumbersUSA strongest grades for his immigration record, so any candidate must be held accountable for their promises to the American people.

    Neither political party is exempt from the massive illegal immigration problem, which has magnified over time? Every promise to enforce our immigration laws has been undone, beginning with the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). It was enacted to fail, because it would be detrimental to incorrigible businesses for low-priced labor and the Democrats hoped to overpower the GOP will votes—LEGAL AND ILLEGAL. It has been foolhardy to trust the majority of those in power in Congress. It is only since the positive manifestation of the American People’s Party, known only too well as THE TEA PARTY, that the legal residents of this nation have found trust. Since the inception of the TEA PARTY, the old “Quid Pro Quo” is starting to fade and leave office. They no longer can command the underhand laws they have passed, as the majority of the people want immigration laws enforced and not determined by selling favors to special interest lobbyists, for special bills to be passed? It’s inevitable a few TEA PARTY leaders will fall beside the wayside, as corruption has its abundance in Washington; they will be watched and not reelected.

    The Washington rotting pattern has been there even before the 1986 law, supposedly to heavily sanction with fines and incarceration of businesses who hire illegal workers. Nothing happened and nothing would, that’s why millions were encouraged to cross borders or catch the next international flight, with unlawful intentions? It’s even absurd that the Congress never made it a Felony, to enter America without permission. Why bother to even respect these countries laws, when entrance is only punishable in a civil court? Two federal mandatory laws that can make an unparalleled difference who gets to stay here, or gets deported. The E-Verify program that thousands of reputable businesses are now using, will remove illegal aliens from the workplace, under the current title of “The Legal Workforce Act”. Second law that is just as demanding is an Amendment to the 14th Amendment, stopping the travesty of foreign babies recognized as citizens, even when no parents has legal status. Directly correlated to the number of immigrants pouring into this nation, is our school system that is breaking down in communities where the English language is seldom the first tongue, anymore.

    Hundreds of thousands of illegal parents annually use this flaw in the 14th amendment, to seduce the welfare benefit programs that the whole family can use? The Democrats state that illegal parents cannot apply for food stamps, Wicca and other so called solid laws only applicable to citizens or some legal residents; a complete travesty, as parent can apply in the name of the citizen child or children and accumulate food stamps, section 8 housing and other entitlement programs. This in itself is a billion dollar fraudulent industry, that taxpayers are coerced to pay? It’s not that we are attracting poverty across the border, but foreigners with heinous criminal records of assault, homicide, child molester, drunk drivers and whole litany of individuals, ready to steal, hijack, invade a home or even kidnap; heavily profuse in Frontier states as Arizona.

    Do the enforcement promises run through legislator’s hands like so much tepid water from either Democrats or Republicans? That before any further concentration on passing some new immigration reform policies, that those meandering around in central government will fulfill the will of the people to build the 2006 Double parallel fence across California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas? The illegal alien issue is not just bad, it is worse than anybody can imagine? It’s costing over a hundred billion dollars a year in unfunded mandated for ever one of the 50 states. It’s costing the central government billions of dollars appointed by the courts, to supplement every illegal alien living conditions with taxpayer coerced money? The federal government has deliberately failed to contain this human pestilence, then when Arizona rises up against the negligence, flowed by Alabama, Georgia, Utah, South Carolina the egomaniac as Eric Holder in charge of the notorious Justice Department sues?

    No wonder the Congress has the lowest grade for its reputation? None of the Senate and House can be trusted, with President Obama spending trillions of dollars, bailing out giant banking institutions in America as well as foreign countries. Not discarded yet is the Obama Care health law, passed behind closed doors and could cause further irreparable damage to our ailing economy. $15 trillion dollars and counting, is there any way out of this financial mess? Are taxpayers once again, paying out for people who wouldn’t work if they could, or people who have skipped borders to benefit from American taxes? Is yet another financially crippling unfunded mandate to reward illegal alien invaders? Then Obama is now using executive decisions over the heads of congress to pardon illegal aliens, should they not committed a crime. Even walking away from Justice and felony’s that they must have committed to get work, using stolen Social Security numbers and other documents? It is ultimately wrong to give a free pass to persons, who violated the laws, when thousands have patiently waited in foreign lands for their chance for a work visa?

    • jespo says:

      The article is about the improbable ability of a political candidate to properly serve her constituency due to her poor understanding of the english language, which is rightfuly so the common language of this country. Bringing in commentary rank with personal predjudices and opinions regarding immigration reform has absolutely nothing to do with the article.

  8. Neal says:

    Wow, I really can’t believe that none of the other people who replied see a problem with this. I don’t think this really is a question of language, but more of a question of who should choose local leaders in a democracy. Last time I checked, the citizens elect leaders in a democracy, not some judge. Let the voters decide whether or not her ability to speak English will be sufficient enough to serve in office. If they felt it would cause problems, I think they would be wise enough not to elect her.

  9. palmcoaster says:

    @Dave Francis do not further blow this issue out of proportion….For sure all administrations have used yours and my dollars to bring here millions refugees for political reasons, waiting in line in the countries of origins to be shipped here with all expenses paid, free housing and a monthly paycheck to sustain them forever. Then those are the same ones that not adapting to our system shoot and kill scores of Americans in places like a Chicago Mall and this one was not brought in to USA by Obama: Also: this one neither brought in by Obama. African Sudanese refugees in Omaha are also a problem in spite of free living forced provided by you and I and Obama didn’t bring these neither:
    These people are brought here with all expenses paid, free housing and a monthly paycheck to sustain them forever by you and I. Then those are the same ones that, not adapting to our system shoot and kill scores of Americans. The illegal’s come here on their own, risking/loosing their lives in those Southwest deserts to work in any job they can find, specially in planting and harvesting the veggies that now are rottening on the vines since Tea Parties bigots like you, started this campaign, nothing different that what was done in the past to Italians, Irish, Jewish and other “legal immigrants”. The “illegal’s come here as such because if they apply for a visa are denied one”, because we need the space for all the political refugees that politicians want to bring in and sustain with all expenses paid!. Also because we unfairly treat or neighbors to the South like “people of a lesser God” and below to all the one’s mentioned above given an all paid passage to our country!
    Obama is trying to resolve the illegal’s issue, by providing temporary working visas for those jobs in the fields that our farmers can’t find workers for (you want to go plant and pick tomatoes?).
    Otherwise you will end up paying twenty bucks for a lb of tomatoes and other veggies and fruits and our agriculture will shut done and will reopen big in Mexico promoting more outsourcing while our farmers will loose all their source income holding mortgages to their empty fields!

    • Oneofthe10%whovoted. says:

      We have LAWS in this country, or at least we used to. Try crossing a border illegally in most parts of the world and see what happens to you.

      Enough. I could care less what the damn tomatoes cost. It is NOT our job to take in the worlds refugees.

  10. "My Daily Rant" says:

    Its always makes me smile when I read the comedy writings of palmcoaster.I think he lives in his own comedy show. Unlike Liberals who believe in opening the border and letting anyone in, Normal Americans believe in using work visas so these people can come and pick fruit.Enforce E-VERFY on all other jobs like construction,meat packing that will put some Americans back to work.The funny thing about Liberals is they believe in giving Illegals health care,free school and so on, then they complain like hell about taxes going up.Remember when people sneak over the border they are not coming with health care.They have the shirts and some times drugs on their backs.I am not anti Immergration I am for Legal Immergration.

  11. Kevin says:

    Jespo, congratulations and I applaud your superior ability to articulate reason and fact! I look forwrd to more of your comments!!!!

  12. palmcoaster says:

    @MyDailyRant, I am glad I make you smile…because actually the frivolous accusations you make on these illegals make me laugh. Thank God you are not “anti-immigration” because your words could not be any worse if you were.

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