Georgia Wants English Only
The Georgia General Assembly is considering a bill that would allow Georgians to vote on a constitutional amendment making English the official language of the state. The real target of this move is to prevent the state from allowing people to take the exam for a Georgia driver's license in a language other than English - currently the test is available in 13 languages. Of course this would have devastating consequences for refugees and immigrants - with such an appalling public transit system, how can people get to work, to their children's school, to the doctor's office, and yes, to English classes if they cannot drive?
Allen Shaklan, the Executive Director of Refugee Family Services (www.refugeefamilyservices.org), wrote a wonderful op-ed in today's Atlanta Journal Constitution. The newspaper does not allow one to post links to their website without a lengthy application and approval process. So, visit their website at www.ajc.com and click on Opinion and look for the piece. Or, here it is, pasted below:New immigrants couldn't drive
By ALLEN SHAKLAN
Published on: 02/01/08
Lelav Amedi is the kind of American we should all admire. Lelav is a hardworking mother of two young children, who, along with her husband, is a homeowner and a taxpayer.
In her free time, she volunteers at her daughter's school. There isn't as much free time as she'd like, because she works full time as a program manager at Refugee Family Services, an agency devoted to helping refugees who have fled war and oppression in their home countries rebuild their lives here in metro Atlanta. Lelav helps refugee families with young children prepare to enter school ready to learn and succeed. She is a success because there were no barriers to her ability to garner a driver's license before learning fluent English.
Lelav, who is Kurdish, became a U.S. citizen in 2006. Fearing for her life, she fled Saddam Hussein's Iraq and arrived in this country in 1997. She was granted refugee status and invited by our federal government to resettle here in metro Atlanta, joining the 50,000 other refugees who have started new lives in our community. When Lelav arrived here, she needed a job. But first she needed a driver's license. So only a few months after arriving, she took the driver's license test and passed. Although now fluent in English, she did not then speak English. She took the test in Arabic. Having gotten her driver's license, Lelav began her first job in the United States.
Given the limits of our public transportation system, the ability to drive frequently determines the ability to work. There is a bill in our state Legislature which, if it had been law at the time Lelav arrived here, would have barred her from taking the driver's test and most likely would have thrown her and her family onto the state's welfare rolls. If this law is passed, it will prevent many other refugees and legal immigrant residents, who want nothing more than to work and support their families, from doing so.
The bill, HR 413, would start the process of amending the Georgia Constitution to require that English be the official and only state language. On its face, the bill would seem to apply to many state activities. But because of the policy of our federal government to provide access to governmental programs for all, regardless of language barriers, the English-only requirement couldn't apply to any state program involving federal funding. Driver's license testing appears to be one of the few places the English-only provision would apply.
Refugees and other legal immigrants, who now take the test almost as soon as they arrive here, would be barred from taking the test until they could learn written English well enough to pass.
This bill is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences. English is the core, unifying language of our country, and every new resident should be supported in learning it. But by emphasizing the importance of English through this legislation, the only results would be to prevent hardworking people from working, forcing them onto state public assistance. What a waste of tax revenues that could otherwise be used to improve our schools, our roads and our environment. We would be preventing our newest legal residents from joining prior generations of refugees and immigrants who have successfully integrated into our community. And we'd be keeping them from the opportunity of interacting with English speakers in the workplace, which is the number one place that refugees learn English. Rather than support assimilation of new refugees into the community, the net effect of this bill would be to isolate them in their homes, without transportation or employment.
Finally, this bill sends the message that those who do not speak English are not welcome in Georgia. If we want to be considered world-class, this is not a good message for our tourist industry, or our economy as a whole. More than 1,600 foreign-based companies have already established operations in metro Atlanta. Whether it is their executives, high-tech researchers or a service sector of minimum-wage workers, international employees are essential to the state's economic growth and well-being. Barriers like English-only laws will not make our state attractive. Our country has a rich history of welcoming immigrants and refugees who have helped make this nation what it is today. We need to keep the multilingual welcome mat at the front door.
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