“English only” bill should protect the state from lawsuits.
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“English only” bill should protect the state from lawsuits.

Date: February 16, 2011
By: Martin Kramara and German Bustamante
State Capitol Bureau
Links: HB 167

JEFFERSON CITY - Foreign-language driving license tests would cease under a measure approved by the House Transportation Committee Tuesday.

Currently, applicants can choose from among 11 different languages besides English.

In 2010, more than 10,000 people used the option of taking the Missouri driver’s test in languages other than English, according to the state Highway Patrol.  An applicant must pay for the costs of an interpreter, if one is used. The two most frequently chosen alternatives were Spanish, with 4,457 tests taken and Chinese, with 2,724 tests.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, said the bill would “acclimate the people more quickly in our society.”

Nolte pointed to similar legislation in Oklahoma, which dropped foreign language test options after a federal discrimination lawsuit was filed because the state did not offer tests in Farsi.

“The lawsuit in Oklahoma has pushed us into a position where it is either everyone or no one,” Nolte said.

“At some point we are looking at the 322 languages spoken in the U.S., so there’s got to be some point where we draw the line," Nolte said. "The lawsuit in Oklahoma has pushed us into a position where it’s either everyone or no one, unfortunately so.”

Nolte said his proposal would also bring more safety to the roads. “At the highway speeds, people need to understand what the signs written in English say, really quickly” Nolte said, expressing his concern that drivers who have not mastered a sufficient command of English could be a potential threat to others on the road.

At the bill's committee hearing, opponents argued the bill would not help applicants learn English and, instead, restrict them from access to basic services.

Vanessa Crawford, executive director of the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates argued English only tests would make integration into society even more difficult, as it would “prevent many of them from getting job or simply driving their children to school or to the doctor."

Pat Dougherty, lobbying for the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of St. Louis supported Crawford's opinion, and added that the is bill a “solution in search of a problem," pointing out that the current law has been functioning very well and has not given any reason to make significant changes.

In a separate interview, Missouri Highway Patrol's spokesperson, Capt. Tim Hull said the patrol was not aware of any existing data in regard to the number of accidents caused by foreigners unable to speak English.

As to the driver’s license testing, he said he believed the road signs “are pretty universal” in all countries, and so allowing people to take the test in foreign languages should not cause any problems. “We have been giving these tests in foreign languages from about 1960s,” Hull said.

In an interview, Nolte said his bill was partly prompted by federal government investigation of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety over alleged violation of the civil rights of two Iranian immigrants who had been denied the possibility to take the driver’s license test in Farsi, the dominant language of Iran. 

Being aware of what happened in Oklahoma, “we must protect the state from the possibility of the lawsuits,” Rep. Nolte said.

Legislative staff estimate the state would save about $52,000 from elimination of both the paper-based and computerized tests in other languages.

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