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Do Elected Officials Have to Speak English?—A Commentary by Adam Cohen

The following commentary was posted on Time.com on February 13, 2012.

Do Elected Officials Have to Speak English?
By Adam Cohen

Alejandrina Cabrera meets all the requirements for serving on the San Luis, Ariz., city council — except one. Cabrera, whose first language is Spanish, speaks limited English — too little, it turns out, to legally run for elected office in Arizona. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled last week that Cabrera did not meet the state’s requirement that elected officials must be proficient in English. It is rare for a city-council candidate to make national news, but Cabrera’s story has made headlines across the country — and prompted a fevered debate over what role English should play in American democracy.

San Luis, where Cabrera was running for office, is a sleepy town of 25,000 on the Mexican border. More than 90% of its residents are of Hispanic origin, and Spanish is heard at least as much as English. Cabrera’s candidacy became an issue when the mayor, a political rival of hers, filed a lawsuit claiming her lack of English proficiency made her ineligible. Cabrera — an American citizen who spent some of her childhood in Mexico — knows some English. When she was questioned at trial, she was able to state her name and place of birth. But she could not answer a question about which high school she attended, the Yuma Sun reported.

In much of the country, Cabrera would not have a problem: candidates do not have to prove that they know English. But Arizona enacted a law in 2006 that bars people who do not speak, write and read English from holding state or local offices. Not that there’s a hard-and-fast legal standard for what constitutes enough English. A sociolinguistic expert who tested Cabrera’s skills testified at trial that she had “basic survival level” English but that she was not proficient. It was his opinion that this was not enough English to conduct official business. The trial judge agreed and ordered her removed from the ballot.

Cabrera insists that she should be eligible to run. She points out that she is not seeking a major national position. “I think my English is good enough to hold public office in San Luis, Arizona,” she told CNN en Español (in an interview conducted in Spanish). But supporters of the English-proficiency requirement say that in a nation where English is the predominant language, elected officials whose English skills are weak will not be effective in their jobs and will not do a good job of representing constituents who do not speak their language.

The English-proficiency camp insists that it is not discriminating against Spanish speakers like Cabrera, but actually trying to build a more inclusive country. “The English language has always been a unifier among the diverse people of the United States,” Mauro Mujica, chairman of U.S. English, Inc., said in hailing the Arizona court rulings.

Cabrera’s supporters argue she can get a great deal of the job done by speaking Spanish, and she can use a translator when she needs to. They also argue that Arizona’s requirements are discriminatory. Some have said that the language tests that she was subjected to are reminiscent of the literacy tests that were once used to prevent blacks and poor whites from voting. If Cabrera appeals the Arizona ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court — which her lawyer says she is considering — she could also argue that the English proficiency requirement is antidemocratic. In a democracy, the voters — not the courts — are supposed to decide who will represent them. If the people in Cabrera’s city-council district do not think her language skills are adequate, they can vote against her.

The fight over English may feel new, but it is actually older than the Republic. Before the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin complained about German immigrants writing in their own language, but the founders never made English an official language, nor did they make English proficiency a condition for holding office. That may have been because they had more faith in the strength and resilience of the U.S. than some people do today. America faces real challenges in the 21st century, but city-council members with limited English skills should be pretty far down on the list.

Cohen, the author of Nothing to Fear, teaches at Yale Law School. The views expressed are solely his own.