A bill that would require would-be motorists in Nebraska to take driver's exams in English was roundly criticized Tuesday as an unnecessary barrier for immigrants that would encourage some to drive unlicensed.

Latino advocacy groups and organizations that work with immigrants and refugees urged state lawmakers to reject the bill during a hearing before the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. No one testified in favor of the measure.

Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins, a retired truck driver, said he sponsored the bill to ensure all drivers can read and understand road signs. Bloomfield said opponents of the bill have accused him of being racist and trying to score political points, but he noted he is serving his final year in office because of term limits and has a daughter-in-law and grandson who are Hispanic.

The bill "is about the safety of everyone on our roads," Bloomfield said. "If you can't read English, how can you read the signs on our roads?"

Bloomfield said his office has crafted an amendment to the bill that would continue to allow sign-language interpreters for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Nebraska offers driver's exams in English and Spanish.

Adrian Sanchez, chairman of Nebraska's Latino American Commission, said the measure creates an unnecessary barrier for people who just arrived in the country. Current signs are designed with easy-to-recognize shapes and colors to help drivers who don't understand the language, he said.

"People not proficient in English may just navigate our roads illegally" if the bill were passed, Sanchez said.

Dr. Lazaro Spindola, the commission's executive director, said his group has found no evidence that English-only driving exams improve safety. Spindola said the bill could jeopardize federal highway funding, and noted that the federal Civil Rights Act prevents discrimination based on national origin. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has argued that language is a part of a person's national origin.

Darcy Tromanhauser, an advocate for immigrants with the group Nebraska Appleseed, said some people already speak English but may feel more comfortable taking exams in their native language. Even if motorists don't speak the language fluently, Tromanhauser said, many can still recognize enough words to drive safely.

"It takes time for them to learn English," she said.

Ian Fallon, a community organizer with the Heartland Workers Center, said the immigrants who work with his south Omaha organization absorb more when they receive instruction in both English and their native tongues. The group offers work-safety training to immigrants, emphasizing key words in both languages.

With that approach, "they're more likely to implement what they've learned on the job," Fallon said.

In a letter to the committee, Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles Director Rhonda Lahm said her agency did not formally support or oppose the bill.

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