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Supporters of a bill before the Georgia Legislature that would require that driver's license exams be given only in English say the measure would improve public safety, but opponents say it discriminates against legal immigrants.
The bill's sponsor, Republican state Sen. Jack Murphy, chairman of the public safety committee, says drivers need to have at least a basic knowledge of English so they can read roadside warnings and communicate with police in an emergency. Immigrant rights and civil liberties groups say the law has so many exceptions that it instead would discourage potential foreign investment.
"The opponents of this bill are trying to paint this as a discrimination bill, which is not true," Murphy told The Associated Press. "It's a public safety issue."
Georgia is one of several states considering such legislation. A similar bill with similar exceptions is making its way through the Legislature in neighboring Tennessee. The Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga chambers of commerce have come out against that bill, saying in a letter to lawmakers that it would send a message that the state is unwelcoming to foreigners. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce declined to comment on the bill.
Georgia's current law requires applicants to take the driving test and road signs test in English. But the written test is offered in 12 other languages, said Susan Sports of the Department of Driver Services. The agency doesn't track the number of tests taken each year in different languages and currently has no plans to add any other languages, she said.
The proposed law would apply only to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, but those with non-immigrant visas -- for example, students or people here on business -- would still be able to take the written test in one of the other languages. The law does not affect illegal immigrants because they aren't eligible for a driver's license.
"This is an economic development killer for the state of Georgia," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Alliance of Latino Elected Officials. "This bill is about open hostility toward legal immigrants. It is open xenophobia."
Gonzalez was one of about two dozen representatives of immigrant rights, civil liberties, religious and refugee resettlement groups who spoke at a news conference protesting the legislation Wednesday at the Capitol.
In 2008, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the number of nonimmigrant visas granted for people coming to Georgia was 474,429, more than double the number of legal permanent residents at the time, estimated at 220,000. Under the proposal, the former would be allowed to take the written driver's license test in another language and to obtain a temporary driver's license valid for the duration of their visa, while the latter would have to take the test in English.
There's no data to indicate how many of those nonimmigrant visa holders or legal permanent residents or how many U.S. citizens living in Georgia are not proficient in English.
The law also allows native English speakers who are illiterate to have the test read out loud to them.
"The exemptions themselves undermine any public safety concerns that Sen. Murphy has raised," Gonzalez said.
Murphy said that most English speakers who are illiterate can decipher basic sentences and would likely be able to read warning signs over the highway, but he acknowledges the exception allowing temporary residents who aren't proficient in English to drive is a problem.
"It is dangerous, but we can't just cut off temporary licenses," he said, adding that requiring legal permanent residents and U.S. citizens to understand enough English to take the test would at least reduce the number of drivers on the road who aren't proficient in English.
"We had to have exceptions to get the bill passed," said Phil Kent, a board member of Arlington, Va.-based ProEnglish, which advocates English as the official language. "Is it a perfect bill? No. But is it a good bill? Yes."
A similar bill passed both houses of the Legislature last year, but time ran out before the two chambers were able to hash out minor differences. This year's version passed the Senate by a vote of 39-11 last month, and Murphy said he is confident differences have been ironed out and the bill will make it to the governor's desk this year.
Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue hasn't said whether he would sign the bill.