By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - A woman barred from seeking elected office in an Arizona border town by a judge who ruled she did not have a sufficient grasp of English has decided to fight the controversial ruling, and filed an appeal on Friday, her lawyer said.
A Yuma County judge disqualified Alejandrina Cabrera, a U.S. citizen born in Yuma, from running for a seat on the city council in the town of San Luis this week for what he called a "large gap" between her English proficiency and that required to serve on the council.
"It was clear to the court that she was stymied by many questions, did not understand many questions, failed to comprehend what was being asked, and guessed at answers," the court ruling said.
The judge, in a move that sparked a debate over language in often bilingual U.S.-Mexican border communities, said Cabrera's English was not of the level needed to carry out the professional duties required of a representative of the public.
A notice of appeal was filed with the court late on Friday afternoon, according to Brandon Kinsey, one of Cabrera's attorneys.
Kinsey said the vast majority of his own conversations with Cabrera have been conducted in English and that she meets the baseline requirement for reading, writing, and speaking in the language.
"Whether or not she is the best candidate is a decision left up to the voters," he said. "It should not be left up to a judge."
Immigrant rights activists said the initial court decision misunderstood a community that spans both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. The San Luis on the U.S. side is a town of roughly 25,000 people 200 miles southwest of Phoenix.
Immediately across the border, is another San Luis, population roughly 175,000. The two municipalities are considered by many residents as one and the same community.
"A lot of those people from San Luis have family members on the other side, go shopping on the other side, go out at night on the other side," said Luis Avila, president of the Arizona-based immigrant rights coalition Somos America.
"This is how people live in the border area," he added.
Supporters of the judge's decision said there were certain basic requirements set in law to be eligible for elected office, including a clear requirement for English proficiency.
"We favor English as the official language for government,"
said Robert Vandervoort, executive director of advocacy group ProEnglish.
"We realize America is a melting pot," he said, "But in terms of how we communicate through government, we believe it should be in English."
Both English and Spanish are spoken during city council meetings in San Luis, Kinsey said.
Supporters of Cabrera complain that public servants have increasingly come under scrutiny for heavy accents or an incomplete command of the English language in Yuma County and throughout the state.
"People feel afraid of the browning of the state of Arizona," said Avila, himself an immigrant from Mexico. "Immigrant bashing has become a political point."
(Writing and additional reporting by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)