ATLANTA — When state Rep. Pedro “Pete” Marin moved from Puerto Rico to Georgia with his family in 1995, he and his wife Nereida each had to apply for a new driver’s license.
Although they had been licensed drivers in Puerto Rico for years, the Marins had to take the same written exam that Georgia teenagers do. But to pass the road-rules half of the written test, Nereida Marin needed help, her husband recalled, because her English at the time wasn’t strong enough.
Fortunately for her, Georgia offered the written exam in various foreign languages. It’s one of more than 40 states that do. She took the test in Spanish and passed. She was soon driving on her own and, her husband says, was able to be a “productive Georgian.”
However, that option could disappear. A state lawmaker is sponsoring legislation to make Georgia offer such services only in English.
From January to October 2015 — the most recent period for which Georgia’s Department of Driver Services has compiled statistics — about 8 percent of written driver’s license tests were taken in one of 11 foreign languages offered. Of those approximately 290,000 written exams, about 15,000 — 5 percent — were conducted in Spanish. Another 1,000 were taken in Vietnamese, Chinese and Arabic.
For years, though, some Republican lawmakers have argued that the state government should not be so accommodating to non-English speakers. They argue that services such as translating voting ballots and offering interpreters to help immigrants use welfare programs end up costing taxpayers money and don’t encourage non-English speakers to develop the fluency.
“My bill definitely has a taxpayer benefit, but there’s also a benefit for non-English speakers, since a key to economic success is adopting the language quickly,” said GOP Sen. Joshua McKoon of Columbus, who is sponsoring a state constitutional amendment to designate English as Georgia’s official language. It would require the state government communicate in English only, with some exceptions for issues such as public health and safety.
English is already the official language of Georgia, but that provision is in a statute, not the constitution. More than 30 states have designated English as their first language. Far fewer have amended their constitutions to make English their official language. The Michigan Legislature is also considering a similar bill, while on the federal level, Rep. Steve King of Iowa has for years spearheaded efforts for the U.S. to declare English the nation’s official language.
McKoon’s resolution was approved by a Senate committee last week and now awaits debate on the Senate floor. Constitutional amendments require two-thirds approval in both chambers and voters’ approval in a statewide election.
Similar bills have previously failed to pass through the legislature, most recently in 2016, when an identical bill passed the Senate in a party-line vote but died in a House committee. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate’s leader and a candidate for governor, supports McKoon’s efforts to advance the proposal, which he calls “reasonable.”
But unlike in previous years, Republicans lack a two-thirds super-majority in either chamber, meaning Democrats could quash the proposal through a party-line floor vote.
“We can prevent a constitutional amendment if we stay united,” Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson of Stone Mountain said during a news conference Monday.
Nevertheless, Democrats are taking the bill seriously. Monday’s event was the second news conference by Democrats to denounce the measure, which they have called xenophobic, against the state’s business interests and a “distraction” designed to drive conservative voters to the polls in November.
McKoon called those arguments “ridiculous,” accused Democrats of playing “identity politics” and said his bill is actually popular statewide.
“A majority of Democrats and Republicans are in favor of making English the official language,” said McKoon, who is running for Georgia Secretary of State.
He also vehemently denies that his proposal is xenophobic.
Rep. Marin, though, said immigrants already face enough barriers and shouldn’t be forced to become fluent English speakers before they can drive a car. Since his family moved to Georgia, Marin said his wife’s English has improved “tremendously” and she can now read, write and speak in both languages.
“It’s not easy to learn the English language so fast,” he said. “The government needs to be accessible, and helping immigrants get driver’s licenses is precisely the opportunity we should be offering to help them succeed in our state.”