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Sioux Falls pushes for easier driving tests for immigrants

Posted at 8:26 AM, Sep 02, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-02 11:32:26-04

Construction industry leaders in the Sioux Falls area want to change South Dakota's driving laws to make it easier for Spanish speakers to get behind the wheel.

State law requires all government documents to be published in English, and officials extend the rule to both the written and skills sections of the driving exam. Most states offer driving tests in different languages, but South Dakota does not, the Argus Leader reports .

Jenna Howell, an attorney for the state Department of Public Safety, said non-English speakers can bring an interpreter to the written test, but they're in charge of finding, hiring and paying for the service. The skills test is only offered in English.

Language restrictions have created a shortage on the workforce in a fast-growing construction industry in the city.

Kari Karst, owner of BX Civil and Construction, depends on immigrants to fill road crews up and down the highways of eastern South Dakota. But she said getting them a driver's license in the state is difficult.

"If we could remove one barrier, that would definitely help," Karst said.

Business leaders in Sioux Falls' construction industry are targeting the law for potential revision. Immigrant labor is "hugely important" to help construction keep up with competition from retail and food service industries that also employ immigrants, said Bryce Healy, executive director of the building chapter of Associated General Contractors-South Dakota.

"Every able-bodied person is a potential employee," he said.

Karst said that for an industry struggling to fill crews, allowing driving exams in Spanish would allow employers to better support those Sioux Falls residents willing to do the work.

"I think we can get over that barrier with the employees," Karst said.

But Howell said the state's language requirements ensure drivers can interpret and obey the rules of the road.

"Correctly interpret and navigate traffic signs and construction zones, and instructions given by workers and law enforcement officials," Howell said.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group among students, said Brian Maher, superintendent of the Sioux Falls School District.

"We can say we embrace diversity," Maher said. "The question that I would have at this point is, do our actions back up our words?"