published Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

English-only bills on the move

Audio clip

K.C. McAlpin

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

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

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."


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.


* Arizona

* Hawaii

* Kansas

* Maine

* New Hampshire

* Oklahoma

* South Dakota

* Utah

* Wyoming



* Georgia: 14

* Alabama: 13

* Tennessee: 4


* 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

about Perla Trevizo...

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 ...

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Wilder said...

Jerry Gonzalez seems to be grasping for straws on this one. Equating a few dozen Korean auto executives who entered Georgia legally with hundreds of thousands of non-English speaking illegal aliens doesn't hold water.

April 3, 2010 at 10:24 p.m.
Nashmusic said...

Eventually learn English, yes but why should motorists be in danger when another motorist cannot understand an English written sign?

There are too many immigrants who come to LIVE HERE PERMANENTLY who lose the incentive to learn English because government coddles them, panders to them and makes things too easy.

Those Korean, German, Swahili, whatever the background, when they come here TEMPORARILY to lead their respective companies ALREADY know English well enough to take the exam in English. Current state law in TN allows a foreigner who is here LEGALLY to drive with their respective license.

It is when they choose, decide or evoke to live in the U.S. permanently that the exam must be administered in English.

Since there’s been talk about unfriendly, allow me to share this academic study conducted on diversity in a public school classroom by Barbara Gross Davis of UC Berkeley and Hall and Sandier, 1982. Titled: Is there adversity in diversity?

Don't try to "protect" any “one” group of students. Don't refrain from criticizing the performance of individual students in your class on account of their ethnicity or gender. If you attempt to favor or protect a given group of students by demanding less of them, you are likely to produce the opposite effect: such treatment undermines students' self-esteem and their view of their abilities and competence therefore creating an adversarial or hostile environment.

For example, one faculty member mistakenly believed she was being considerate to the students of color in her class by giving them extra time to complete assignments. Good intentions, drastic effects. She failed to realize that this action would cause hurt feelings on all sides: the students she was hoping to help felt patronized, and the rest of the class resented the preferential treatment.

Speaks volumes about coddling immigrants with respect to a driver’s license exam.

Eddie Garcia Cheatham County, TN

April 5, 2010 at 4 p.m.
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