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Huff Post: Non-English Speakers Struggle To Get Up To Speed As States Try To Keep Them Off Roads

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Nine states currently offer an English-only written driver's license test and at least three others - Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee - are actively pursuing legislation to join that list. Those in favor of such laws say not speaking English is a safety issue on the roads. Their counterparts say it is merely prejudice to exclude limited English proficient (LEP) drivers and puts the states that enact these bills at an enormous competitive disadvantage economically.

Foreign companies routinely make investments in the United States that increase the local tax base, help drive the economy forward and create jobs. "Three of our last large billion dollar investments (in Tennessee) are all foreign-owned companies," Lori Odom, director of International Development with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development told the Kingsport Times-News in Kingsport, Tenn. Foreign investment increases the amount of capital for equipment, buildings, land, patents, copyrights, trademarks and if properly executed even creates goodwill, too. In California alone, foreign companies employed 605,600 workers in 2007, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

To ignore the economic impact of foreign investors is to be naive. The current recession has taught us many lessons, perhaps none more important than the connection we share in a much larger, more fragile world economy.

I've written before about how history shows a strong tradition in this country of eventually assimilating each wave of immigrants into our society. We continue to be a country of nearly 200 languages and cultures. More than 24 million of us, all U.S. residents, speak a language other than English at home, or still have trouble communicating clearly. These are not illegals. They are legal immigrants who make their homes here, and until now, have been playing by all of the rules.

We must have patience as these immigrants work to learn English. For employment and income reasons alone, most want to learn the language; it just takes time. Research indicates an average LEP student requires six months to two years to acquire social language and three to five years to advance to an academic understanding. Meanwhile, full English classes nationwide with waitlists of one to three years mean an even longer delay to drive as they struggle to support their families and rely on what is often a poor public transportation system.

Currently, a Georgia driver's license test can be administered in one of 13 different languages. Missouri offers 11 including Spanish, Chinese, Greek and Bosnian. Tennessee exams are in English, Spanish, Korean and Japanese. New York, Kentucky and Massachusetts are among six states that offer the test in 17 or more languages. California leads the nation with 32.

If anything, we need more languages being offered - not less.

Aparna Bhattacharyya, executive director of Raksha, a nonprofit support organization for South Asians, called the Georgia bill "hate filled." "We have such poor transportation here that anybody needs a car to survive. This bill prevents immigrants from being able to prosper and support themselves," Bhattacharyya told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Despite being state-led government agencies, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) throughout the country receive funding from various federal organizations such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Highway Administration, even the Department of Homeland Security which awarded $3.2 million to California's Department of Motor Vehicles under the REAL ID Demonstration Grant Program in 2008. The fact that DMVs receive these funds should make them even more accountable for driver's license exams that are accessible to LEPs. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on national origin, and Executive Order 13166 issued in 2000 requires that federal agencies work to ensure recipients of financial assistance provide meaningful access to their LEP applicants and beneficiaries.

The truth is there are no studies that suggest English proficiency makes better drivers. Road signs are already international which is why Americans can travel to foreign countries and rent a car without speaking the language. We owe our neighbors of the world and partners in economic prosperity the same courtesy as they struggle to get up to speed.

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