English-only bills are nothing new in Tennessee and Georgia, although some argue that it has become a growing movement.
"I think there has been a trend in recent years (where) state legislators have been hearing from police and emergency personnel about dangerous situations or accidents in which the failure to understand English has been a problem," said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of ProEnglish, a national organization that advocates making English the official language at all levels of government.
But opponents of this type of legislation say it's mainly based on fear.
"There has been a movement among a small minority to isolate English as the only language acceptable in the country," said Elias Feghali, spokesman for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
"Those who believe in English-only come from a feeling that the dominant culture of this country is under attack and one way to preserve that is to make newcomers unwelcome and force them to conform to impractical standards," he said.
From statutes that made English the official language in Tennessee and Georgia, to bills requiring that employees speak only English in the workplace and proposals requiring the driver's license exam be given only in English, the argument has varied.
At times it has been about illegal immigrants, or about preserving the English language and, most recently, about road safety.
Nine states have English-only driver's license tests -- but not Tennessee and Georgia -- and many more have introduced legislation to make that a law, according to ProEnglish.
Eighty-four percent of Hispanics 5 and older in Georgia and 74 percent in Tennessee speak a language other than English at home, according to recent state profiles released by the Pew Hispanic Center.
In Tennessee, Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, has introduced an English-only driver's license exam bill every year since 2005.
"I introduced the bill several years ago because I felt it was necessary from a safety standpoint that everyone who drives on our roads and our state know how to read English," he said.
So far it hasn't passed, he said, due to lack of support in the House.
His latest bill was amended to basically leave it to the discretion of the state department of safety to offer the test in any of the four languages now available -- Japanese, Korean, Spanish and English -- very similar to the current requirements.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said he would approve of any bill that leaves it up to the safety department to determine what languages the test should be given in.
"We have put a lot of time and energy into companies like Volkswagen coming to Chattanooga," Sen. Berke said, "and it makes all the sense in the world to ensure that they stay and can be members of the community."
But Sen. Ketron said he hopes the Senate bill will be substituted by the House bill, which goes back to the original intent, to offer the test solely in English.
"In the event that the federal administration gives amnesty to between 20 and 30 million people ... it will open the doors, and we want to make sure that those (people) will look at some other states instead of coming here and collapsing our entire system from health care to education," he said.
In Georgia, a similar bill that would restrict the written portion of the driver's license test to English died last year, but it passed the House and Senate Wednesday.
Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton, said he voted for the bill last year and this year because it improves the safety of the roads by requiring people to be able to read the signs in English.
But opponents argue it can harm Georgia's ability to compete internationally, an argument also brought up in Tennessee.
"Essentially, what they are telling (South Korea's) Kia with this bill is that they can build cars, invest in Georgia, but some of the executives and their family members would not be able to get Georgia driver's licenses because they weren't fluent enough in English," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.
Mr. Gonzalez said English-only-type legislation has been around for quite some time, but it has gained steam in the past several years.
Mr. McAlpin said his organization supports English-only legislation because immigrants need to learn English.
"If we make it easy for them to continue to use their native language, they are never going to learn English and become self-sufficient and able to stand on their own and get ahead in this country," he said.
But opponents say there's no need because immigrants eventually learn English.
"You cannot thrive in this country unless you understand the dominant language," said Mr. Feghali, but this type of legislation "creates barriers making it harder for them to do so."
STATUS OF BILL
Georgia: Passed by the House and the Senate
Tennessee: Different versions of the bill were approved last week by the House and Senate Transportation Committees and are awaiting action in House and Senate Finance Committees.
STATES OFFERING TEST ONLY IN ENGLISH:
* New Hampshire
* South Dakota
CURRENT DRIVER'S LICENSE TEST LANGUAGES:
* Georgia: 14
* Alabama: 13
* Tennessee: 4
CLOSER TO HOME
* Georgia: HB 533 and SB 67: Would require all written and oral examinations be administered only in English, exempting temporary license seekers.
* Tennessee: SB 2660: Would required the written portion of the exam be given in English only. However, an amendment creates major exceptions for people legally authorized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to be in the country for a "specific purpose, including, but not limited to, investing, overseeing investment, providing needed services to companies ... in Tennessee."
Source: State legislatures, Times Free Press archives
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...