Complain-o-rama: Utah Requires Foreigners to Pass Driver's Test in English
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Oh, the humanity! A state expects foreign newbies to be able to read the local traffic signs in order to be licensed to drive. A recent article from Salt Lake informed readers that a suffering Somali refugee was forced to endure taking the bus and (gasp!) walking. Shouldn’t refugees at least get a right to taxpayer-funded free taxis 24/7? Hmm?

(Perhaps the paper was bored with the many stories of unhappy unemployed refugees – who are still being imported despite the jobs depression – and wanted a change of complaint.)

Not all states are so scrupulous about public safety: California for example provides DL tests in 32 languages – so diverse! Furthermore, ethno-organizations that value their tribe’s special treatment above all else actually campaign against testing in America’s common language.

Groups lobby against English-only driver’s license test, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 8, 2010

Currently, a Georgia driver’s license test can be administered in one of 13 different languages. SB 67, pushed by Sen. Jack Murphy of Cumming, would limit those languages to just English. Murphy, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said English-only is a public safety issue. He said he doesn’t want people who can’t read not being able to understand road signs.

Back to the Utah case…
”English only’ driver’s test change makes refugees’ lives even tougher, Salt Lake Tribune, April 23, 2010

When Ibrahim Ahmed’s wife recently told him she was out of diapers for their young twins, it was 11 p.m. So the Somali refugee, who used to drive a bus in Africa, set out on foot in Salt Lake City. Nearly an hour later, he arrived at the grocery store.

After five months living in Utah, Ahmed has tried to pass the written drivers license test three times. Though he speaks seven languages, including a fair amount of English, he has yet to succeed.

Had he arrived in Utah a year ago, he could have taken a ”picture” version of the driver license test, perhaps passed and vastly improved his and his family’s life.

But last fall, the state Driver License Division eliminated that version of the test. Officials wanted to comply with Utah law, which requires the division to test a prospective driver’s ”ability to read and understand simple English used in highway traffic and directional signs.” Questions had persisted about the picture test’s validity and whether it was equivalent to the written test.

”We have no desire to make things more difficult for anyone,” said Chris Caras, the bureau chief of driver services. ”But we do have an obligation to hold everyone to the same standard.”

The change has rocked the Utah refugee community. Not having a driver license makes it almost impossible to reach or return from some jobs, particularly for early morning or swing shifts when buses do not run. Not being able to drive makes the newcomers ineligible for certain positions that have driving responsibilities. This makes the pool of job possibilities shrink dramatically.

Critics say the formal language and word problems in the written exam demand far more from refugees than basic stop-sign English, creating a barrier to economic independence.

Depending on the day, Ahmed’s work shift starts as early as 5:30 a.m. So he starts walking at 4 a.m. or a little earlier.

His wife was so frustrated after her husband failed the driving exam again that she suggested they move to Colorado – where it’s easier for non-English speakers to get a license. She hates knowing that he’s walking on the street so early in the morning.

”It is very dangerous,” she said. ”Leave this job.”

More than 1,000 refugees are expected to arrive in Utah this fiscal year – from Iraq, Bhutan, Burma, Somalia and other countries – adding to the more than 20,000 refugees already here. Learning sufficient English to pass the test could take years, said Beth Garstka, volunteer coordinator at the English Skills Learning Center in Salt Lake City.

”The English that’s on this test is not basic,” she said. ”Ultimately [the refugees] just want to be part of the community and they want to have that piece of ID – this is just a big roadblock.”

Ahmed agrees. ”The dialect they’re using [in the test], it’s very hard,” he said.

Unlike other Intermountain West states, such as Colorado and Arizona, Utah does not permit interpreters to translate the test for applicants. Bilingual dictionaries are allowed, though dictionaries don’t always exist or may not be easily located in a refugee’s language. Also, newcomers may not be literate in any language.

An audio version of the test is offered with a recorded voice for people whose English comprehension is better than their reading ability. But that, too, can prove extremely challenging, Garstka said, due to factors such as complex vocabulary, speed and intonation.

The end result is many refugees remain unable to take advantage of the few jobs available.

”Right now we’ve got job offers with three hotels outside the valley, but you’ve got to be able to drive,” said Gerald Brown, director of the Utah Refugee Services Office. ”So you know these people are going to stay here and they’re not going to work. We’re going to be paying them what little public assistance we pay them and it’s not helping anybody.”

Though he wants refugees to be able to understand road signs and follow the law, ”I don’t think they have to be able to read or speak English in order to be a safe driver,” Brown said.

Hoping to bypass Utah’s driver license hurdles, some refugees are traveling to neighboring states to take the driver license exam, refugees and advocates report. The states often don’t have a ”picture” test, but the refugee can use a translator.

Helping refugees get their driver license in Utah may come down to changing the law.

”We have a range of options that other states have pointed us towards,” said Palmer DePaulis, executive director of Utah’s Department of Community and Culture. ”Our strategy is to work through the summer, the interim sessions, to find out if we can adjust this statutorily.”

Beyond offering the exam in Spanish, some states have accommodated newcomers by translating it into more unusual languages. In Minnesota, the driver’s test is offered in six languages, including Hmong and Somali. California provides the test in 32 languages, from Croatian to Tongan.

In Utah, fewer refugees are attending driver education as a result of the state’s move.

The Asian Association, which connects refugees to jobs, is sending 60 percent fewer refugees to driving classes. It pays for about half the cost of the course.

”If they can’t speak good enough English to pass the written test, we don’t feel like we can spend the money,” said Lina Smith, director of the Utah Refugee Center at Asian Association of Utah. That decision does not reflect a lack of confidence in refugees’ driving skills, she said.

”They might even be a better driver than I am,” she said.

During his two decades in a refugee camp in Kenya, Abdullahi Farah, 50, learned how to drive. Now the father of five, he has lived in Utah about three months and is unemployed. Farah, a Somali refugee, knows that buses don’t always go to the outer edges of the city and to suburban areas where many of the manual, industrial jobs exist. He knows some employers require a means of transportation to their business.

And he knows passing the driver license test would launch a new chapter in his life in America.

”We don’t hope to pass it,” said Farah, who has limited English and no experience with a computer. ”It’ll take us years to learn the language.”

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