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Eye On Boise

Legislation aimed at illegal aliens could actually hamper legal refugees

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, aimed at punishing Idaho employers who hire illegal immigrants, could end up hurting refugees who come to the state legally, refugee advocates say, by preventing them from getting driver's licenses so they can work. Jorgenson's bill would ban the use of interpreters or offering the driver's license written test in any language other than English; he now says he'd consider dropping that provision. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

Refugees may be hit by ID bill aimed at illegals
JOHN MILLER, Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Cesar Penasiel arrived in Boise in December, fleeing political unrest in his native Colombia only to learn what most U.S. teenagers know instinctively: Real American freedom is found behind the wheel of a car.

For legal refugees like 19-year-old Penasiel, jobs are often hourly and miles away, so the ability to travel to-and-from work sites is a must. He quickly got his Idaho license after passing the written test in Spanish, one of eight languages in which it's currently offered.

Under a proposal now in the Idaho Senate, however, he would have been restricted to a written test in English.

"That would have been impossible," Penasiel said Monday through an interpreter, adding Idaho's practical test was a snap. "I started driving trucks eight years ago in Columbia, when I was 11."

At least 10 states now offer English-only driver's license tests: Utah, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Arizona, South Dakota, Wyoming, Maine, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arizona, according to Arlington, Va.-based advocacy group ProEnglish that aims to limit official government business solely to English.

States like Kansas, South Dakota and Wyoming allow interpreters. But Idaho's measure, should it pass, would forbid such assistance.

It was authored by Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, a promoter of efforts to punish employers for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. His bill, among other things, would require employers use the federal "E-Verify" system to document workers' eligibility.

While that provision is being fought by Idaho's construction and dairy industries, it's the "English-only" restriction Jorgenson added this year that has refugee advocates vexed.

"It seems shortsighted," said Christina Bruce-Bennion, director for Agency for New Americans in Boise, which last year helped 270 refugees resettle in southwestern Idaho.

Jorgenson conceded he hadn't previously considered his measure's impact on legal immigrants, political refugees or even foreign students on educational exchanges. Asked about the matter Monday, he told The Associated Press he won't insist on the English-only provision, if other lawmakers object.

"I'm only worried about illegal workers," Jorgenson said. "That's all I'm trying to fix."

Idaho now offers written tests in Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese, Spanish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian and Farsi — languages of groups that have come to Idaho in significant numbers in response to war, economic hardship, persecution or just the hope of a better life. In 2009, 141 of 437 people who took the Arabic version passed it, according to the Idaho Transportation Department.

Four of 28 Iranians who took the Farsi test scored passing marks, as did 1,125 of 3,442 people who took it in Spanish.

Meanwhile, 56,813 of the 81,554 people who took the written test in English passed.

K.C. McAlpin, executive director of ProEnglish, said states that adopt English-only tests heighten the urgency for immigrants to master the dominant U.S. language. This year, there are also budget concerns — translated tests cost money — and safety to think about, he said.

"If they can't read the traffic signs, they are a danger to themselves," McAlpin said. "Most refugees are settled in urban areas where there's an existing public transportation network. Catering to their needs to have a driver's license test in their own language shouldn't take priority over public safety."

Idaho refugee advocates say their state's minuscule public transit network, wide-open spaces and agricultural economy that employs many nonnative English speakers undermine such arguments.

"A lot of our clients are finding jobs they have to commute to, up to an hour each way," said Josh Campbell, employment coordinator for Agency for New Americans in Boise. "There's not a very good public transportation system in Treasure Valley. Their only option is driving and having a license."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

Eye On Boise

News, happenings and more from the Idaho Legislature and the state capital.