ATLANTA – Georgia would require that new drivers take a written license test in English under a bill being considered by state lawmakers, and the proposal has some employers and immigrant advocates worried it would keep people unfamiliar with the language from being able to work.
The measure is the latest in a series of English-only legislation around the country, but Georgia is believed to be the only state that would have a law requiring that drivers take the written test in English without a translator or other aid. Versions of the bill have passed both chambers of the Legislature, and lawmakers are trying to hash out differences before the session ends Friday.
Supporters say it is a public safety measure because drivers need to be able to read English to understand roadside signs and warnings. Opponents argue that the measure unfairly targets immigrants and may violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They also say it could discourage foreign companies from making investments in the state and affect local companies who hire foreign workers.
In a state where large portions of the population don't have access to public transportation, the proposed law could further isolate non-English speakers by preventing them from driving to work, shuttling their children around and getting to English classes, said Azadeh Shahshahani, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in Atlanta.
"All across the country, people with limited English proficiency are driving safely, and it's better to make sure they are going through the process and learning the rules of the road in whatever language to improve the safety of everyone on the roads," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.
Georgia's current law requires applicants to take the driving test and road signs test in English. But the written test is offered in 14 other languages "as a customer service initiative," said Susan Sports of the Georgia Department of Driver Services.
About 5,000 people a month take the written test in another language, the most popular being Spanish, followed by Japanese and Korean.
Youngsoon Yin, a 46-year-old hairdresser, immigrated from South Korea several years ago to join her parents and siblings, who live in suburban Atlanta. She is a legal permanent resident but doesn't speak English well and wouldn't have been able to take the written test if it hadn't been offered in Korean, said her sister, Youngme Lim.
"Either she wouldn't have been able to get to work or go grocery shopping or visit me and our parents, or she would have driven anyway without a license and without insurance," Lim said.
Daniel Zuccala, 40, took his driver's test after immigrating to the U.S. illegally from Uruguay in 1986 before legal permanent residency or citizenship was required to get a license. Zuccala, who is now a legal resident and owns a grocery store in Atlanta, said he didn't know any English at the time.
"I wouldn't have been able to get a driver's license if the test wasn't in Spanish," he said. "And that would have made it impossible to get to my job because I lived far away."
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. They would be able to take the written test in another language.
That exception and a provision that allows illiterate people to have the written test read to them aloud prove the bill is not purely a public safety measure, opponents say, because it would allow some people who can't read English to drive.
"I think everybody who operates a motor vehicle on the Georgia highways should be able to read directions and warning signs in English," said D.A. King, a supporter of the bill and president of a group named after a Georgia teenager killed in a traffic accident caused by an illegal immigrant in 2000. The Dustin Inman Society pushes for stricter laws to combat illegal immigration.
Georgia Peach Commission chairman Al Pearson said the law could have serious consequences for the state's farmers, many of whom hire legal immigrants who can't read English well enough to take the written test.
"We would have drivers that we depend on who would not be able to get a license if they couldn't take the test in Spanish or have an interpreter," Pearson said.
Similar proposals have passed statehouse committees in Tennessee and Missouri this year, while another failed in Alabama last year. Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue hasn't yet said if he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
Immigrant rights groups say passing the law could cause some federal funds to be withheld under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which protects against national origin discrimination. Under that law, agencies that receive federal funding have to take "reasonable steps" to ensure that people with limited English proficiency have "meaningful access" to their services.
But, in a 2001 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Mexican immigrant lacked standing to sue the state of Alabama for its "English-only" policy. The high court turned down Martha Sandoval's request for a Spanish driver's test, ruling 5-4 that Congress didn't expressly grant that right, and therefore, it is a state decision.