Sunday, April 5, 2009

Georgia moves to eliminate foreign-language driver license exams

Although some people in Georgia are laying out the welcome mat for folks from Korea, this can't be said for those in the state legislature. According to the Orange County Register, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would require residents to take driver license exams in English "without the assistance of a translator or other aid." This is part of a wave of English-only legislation moving around the United States.

Among the 5000 people who take foreign language exams in Georgia, Spanish speakers are the largest group, followed by Japanese and Koreans (which may include students as well as immigrants).

Contrast this with supposedly "one of the most xynophoebic countries in the world," Korea, where road signs throughout the country are mostly in English (and Chinese!) and not only can you take licensing exams in English, but they have set up an entire series of offices just for people who can't handle the local language but nonetheless need a license.

Is the assault on non-Anglophone immigrants (legal or not) a wise thing? Immigration advocates, according to the OCR, immigration advocates are "worried it would keep people unfamiliar with the language from being able to work." Others are concerned that targeting immigrants would violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I would add that it might end up causing some to drive without a license (and thus without insurance) which is no good for anyone.

And all for what? Because we think that we are making it too easy to for immigrants to live in America without learning English? Even if there weren't a problem with ESL classes at the community colleges being full, one has to recognize that economic conditions themselves push people to learn English. At the very least, their kids will grow up in English-language schools and perpetuate the dominance of English.

According to the OCR, supporters of the English-only provisions say that drivers must be able to read English to understand roadside signs and warnings. While that is something to be concerned about, the vast majority of signs are language-neutral (icons, mostly) or they involve a very small number of words that could be learned much more easily than the English required to understand entire sentences about when to turn or not to turn or what to do at a railway crossing. Those are things better understood in one's native language, and they must be learned before one ever gets behind the wheel.

According to the OCR, Georgia now requires applicants to take the driving test and road signs test in English, but the written test is offered in fourteen other languages “as a customer service initiative.” The proposed law would apply only to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents but does carve out an exception for temporary workers with visas or refugees, who are eligible for short-term licenses.

Ironically, these exceptions and a provision allowing ways for the illiterate to have the written test read to them aloud indicate that the bill is not really a public safety measure, but something xenophobic aimed at immigrants.

I've gone on record as saying I think public signage (e.g., in commercial areas) that is not in English is not a good thing and should be discouraged. That's a way of preventing English speakers in this English-speaking nation from becoming alienated in their own neighborhoods; in other words, it's aimed at preventing social stratification. These punitive bills, borne mostly from a perception that immigrants are taking over, are completely the opposite.

I'm reminded of California's own English-only initiatives, where California's official bilingual status — from a time when Spanish speakers outnumbered English speakers in newly stolen annexed California — came about as a scared White reaction to brown people moving into their area.

[above: Snagged from some Georgian's blog, his reaction to then California governor Gray Davis's plan in 2003 to allow undocumented residents to get driver licenses.]

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