It began as a local story. Citing a state law requiring public officials to know English, a judge in Arizona ruled that city council candidate Alejandrina Cabrera should be barred from seeking public office because of her limited English skills. But the controversy over Cabrera's eligibility has reverberated nationally, stoking the debate over whether Spanish-speaking immigrants — and Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens such as Cabrera — are too slow to assimilate. That question is entwined with an issue that has surfaced in the Republican presidential campaign: whether English should be declared the official language of the United States.
This week the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a ruling that Cabrera couldn't appear on the ballot in the March 13 election in the city of San Luis, a community near the Mexican border in which most residents speak only Spanish. The original decision cited tests administered by a sociolinguistics expert and Cabrera's inability to respond to questions posed to her in English at a hearing. Cabrera concedes that she needs to improve her English, but believes her skills are adequate for her to take part in council business. Certainly her problems with English are not an impediment to communicating with potential constituents. But could she participate fully in council meetings — or should that body employ translators to help her bridge the language gap?
The court made the wrong decision, in our view. Cabrera's fitness for office should be judged by the voters; they must choose who they want to represent them, and there should be as few limitations on that choice as possible. As for the language in which the meetings are conducted, it should be English, although that doesn't mean no member of the council or constituents can ever break into Spanish, or that it would be wrong to provide translators. Under the federal Voting Rights Act, ballots are printed in a variety of languages to accommodate voters with poor English skills. In Los Angeles County, election materials are provided not just in Spanish but also in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Hindi, Khmer and Thai.
The Cabrera controversy, of course, is not just about Cabrera. It touches on larger issues, such as the continuing debate between those who support bilingual education and those who argue that the best way to help students master English is to enroll them in English immersion classes. Part of that debate is over whether immigrants, and particularly Spanish-speaking immigrants, are isolating themselves and harming their own economic prospects by not learning English. Is the United States in danger of replicating the experience of linguistically divided countries such as Belgium and Canada?
That's the view of many conservatives. In 2004, the late political scientist Samuel Huntington created a sensation with an article arguing that "the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico." Huntington worried that Americans were acquiescing "to their eventual transformation into two peoples with two cultures (Anglo and Hispanic) and two languages (English and Spanish)." That same argument resonated, in cruder terms, in the political arena. Tom Tancredo, a Republican candidate for president in 2008, garnered applause by complaining about having to "press 1 for English." The current crop of Republican presidential candidates all would establish English as the official national language (though Ron Paul would leave it to states whether to print ballots in multiple languages).
Such arguments go back at least to Benjamin Franklin, who wrote about the "swarthy" Germans who settled in his state: "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion." Nativists have continued to warn of the dangers of bilingualism in the United States.
To the extent that such fears are now being voiced about Latinos, they are unjustified. A 2007 study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that while only 23% of Latino immigrants report being able to speak English very well, the figure rises to 88% for their U.S.-born adult children and 94% for later generations. There is no reason to believe that communities such as San Luis are impervious to that trend.
Whether or not Congress designates it as the United States' "official" language, English is and will remain the national language. And Spanish-speaking Americans, like those who came to this country speaking other languages, have a huge incentive to learn it. But transition takes time, and meanwhile there will be complications and conundrums like the case of Alejandrina Cabrera.