English-only drivers' test bill headed to Senate

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Angela Liu started learning English in the second grade in her hometown of Dalian, a city in northeast China about 300 miles from Beijing.

Still, when she got to Cape Girardeau a little over three years ago, she flunked the state driver's exam the first time she took it.

"I didn't understand the meaning of some of the words," said Liu, a 22-year-old Southeast Missouri State University student. "So I went home and studied the whole book. Then I passed it the second time."

Liu could have taken the test in her native language under the current state statutes, but she instead opted to take it in English.

"I felt like I should know the language," she said. "But, personally, I do know a lot of people who tell me it's really hard to understand, and they're glad that they can take it in Chinese."

A bill being considered by Missouri lawmakers -- one that is gaining momentum -- may take away that option by making it a requirement that drivers' license tests be administered in English only.

The bill, which also allows for American Sign Language, cleared a barrier last week when the Missouri House passed the measure with a 102-56 vote largely along party lines.

The bill has failed in the House in past sessions, where the debate was sometimes contentious, but it's now headed to the Senate. House Republicans said the measure is about roadway safety and immigrant assimilation, while Democrats argued it reeks of xenophobia, pandering and bigotry.

Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said he has yet to read the bill but that he generally supports the move.

Crowell said he has not determined how he will vote but that if someone is going to drive in the U.S., they should be able to read and understand street and directional signs. Drivers should also be able to communicate with police, 911 operators or emergency first-responders, he said.

Currently, the Missouri State Highway Patrol offers the written portion of the exam in 11 languages other than English, including Chinese, Bosnian, Russian and Spanish.

Crowell takes exception to anyone who says the bill is about anything other than good governing, especially Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, who said in a hearing the bill is "really about hatred."

"That's crazy," Crowell said. "No one that goes up to Jefferson City and serves publicly inspired by hate. ... That is a disparaging comment. She's just so wrong, she doesn't know how wrong she is."

Schupp could not be reached for comment.

Crowell did say he is open to finding a compromise for what he called legitimate concerns, such as giving non-English-speaking drivers a permit for one year, such as a learner's permit, to see how well they drive and how problematic it becomes.

Some plan to continue to lobby against the bill, including Vanessa Crawford, executive director of Missouri Immigration and Refugee Advocates. She said those who voted for the measure don't understand how the driver's certification system works.

"I hope the Senate can see the light on this bill and how big a hindrance it will be," she said.

Crawford pointed out that on the test, no matter what language it's given in, the symbols for roadways signs are always in English. The test-taker must identify them and then they are allowed to write their answers in their native language. The rest of the written portion is in their native language, she said.

Another misconception, she said, is that people think the bill is about illegal, undocumented immigrants, but they are already obviously forbidden from taking the driver's test.

What this bill does, Crawford said, is make it more difficult for immigrants who are here legally.

"In order to learn English, they need to go to work, go to school, interact in the community, and they need to know how to drive to do those things," she said. "Without a driver's license, this bill robs them of that chance."

But the bill already has initial support from Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, who said he intends to send the bill to committee sometime after March 28 when spring break ends.

While he said it's not a top Senate priority -- those include bills on workers' compensation, redistricting and right-to-work -- he sees it as a common-sense move. He also disagrees with those who said it's Republicans pandering to their base.

"But I do think most Missourians would share the sentiment," he said. "We need some things that bind us together, regardless of what our backgrounds are. The English language bring us together as Americans."

smoyers@semissourian.com

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Pertinent address:

Missouri State Capitol, Jefferson City, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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