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Georgia lawmakers prepare to debate whether English-only policy would help or hurt state

Some of Georgia’s state senators want to ask the public to declare English Georgia’s official language, and they want noncitizen driver’s licenses to be printed vertically. Their reasons include saving money and avoiding errors. But they face opposition from lawmakers and activists who say those ideas remove the welcome mat from a state that's trying to attract new businesses.

Folks can now take the Georgia driver’s license written test in any one of several languages, and that’s one of the things that would be switched to English-only, if the Legislature and voters agree to Senate Resolution 587 by state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus.

“When you have the state administering our driver's license examination in 11 different languages, when you have repeated calls for accommodations to be made in a wide array of government communications, there’s an expense associated with that,” McKoon said.

His idea is to set up a statewide vote on changing the state constitution so that official Georgia uses English, except in limited circumstances like communications with victims who speak little or no English.

McKoon said Georgia’s existing official English law has too many “loopholes” and doesn’t have as much force as a constitutional amendment.

In Senate Bill 161, state Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, wants noncitizen ID cards — like driver's licenses — to be oriented vertically, a prominent difference that he said will be helpful to folks who might not know the ways of the U.S. well.

“Imagine putting yourself in another country. You don’t know all the laws and customs there. I’d like for somebody to say, ‘Hey let me help you out,’” he said. Ginn said he wants people carrying the card to be given the “benefit of the doubt” when appropriate.

For example, he said he was once rear-ended by a student who carried a license marked “limited-term,” meaning the holder wasn’t a citizen. Ginn said he sent the young man on his way and didn’t call the police.

But he also wants the ID to draw a bright line at polling places, cutting down on the chance that noncitizens could be handed a ballot.

But both those bills, plus another that adds a fee to money transfers, amount to an “adios Amazon” agenda that could make the online shopping giant bypass Georgia in its search for a second headquarters location, according to immigrant and civil rights activists who held a state Capitol press conference on Thursday.

Maria Del Rosario Palacios is with the Georgia Alliance of Latino Elected Officials, a nonprofit that looks to increase Latino and Hispanic civic participation and leadership. She pointed out that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos just donated $33 million in scholarship money to young people who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children and are now without permanent permission to stay.

Bezos’ announcement points out that his own adoptive stepfather came to the U.S. from Cuba at the age of 16 without speaking any English.

"Imagine if the stepfather of the CEO of Amazon was in today’s state of Georgia, with an English-only bill,” said Palacios.

McKoon rejected the idea that his bill could spook Amazon. He said companies decide where they will build based on taxes, regulations, workforce, infrastructure and tax incentives, and not an English-language policy.

But state Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, said he’d put the tagline “here we go again” on bills like McKoon's.

Marin said as long ago as 2006, he was on the state House floor arguing against an English-only proposal. He said his own wife took the written driver's license test in Spanish.

“And what happened? She became a productive person in the state of Georgia. She could drive, she could work, she could go to school,” Marin said.

McKoon's bill was given preliminary approval by the state Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday. It could appear for a full Senate floor vote as early as Tuesday.