Iranian immigrants want Farsi-language Oklahoma driver's license testing
BY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
4/21/08 at 9:27 AM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The federal government is investigating whether the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety violated the civil rights of Iranian immigrants by refusing to provide them with driver's license tests in their native Farsi language.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched the investigation in March after a complaint filed on behalf of two Iranian nationals living in Bartlesville accused the state agency of unlawful discrimination based on their national origin, according to a letter from the NHTSA to Public Safety Commissioner Kevin Ward.
Public safety officials said Tuesday that offering state driver's license tests in Farsi could force the state to offer tests and other state documents in a host of other languages, creating new costs and administrative burdens. The written portion of Oklahoma's test is currently provided only in English and Spanish.
"The enormity of the situation is overwhelming," said Oklahoma Highway Patrol Capt. Chris West. Driver's license tests in multiple languages would create huge composition and printing costs and translators would have to be hired to grade the tests in each language, West said.
"It could be a huge financial burden. And very labor intensive," West said.
The complaint was filed on behalf of Fardha Sharifi and her husband, Alireza Sanghinmanesh, who immigrated to the United States with their young son, said Hassan Sharifi, Fardha Sharifi's cousin and a restaurant owner in Bartlesville.
He said the couple wanted to get Oklahoma driver's licenses last year but did not understand English well enough to take the Oklahoma test.
"They wanted to go to work. And I had to drive them around almost everywhere they went," said Hassan Sharifi, who immigrated to the U.S. 30 years ago. "It seemed like my life was interrupted."
He said he contacted state driver's license officials to see if the test could be provided in the couple's native language, Farsi.
"They didn't answer me," Hassan Sharifi said. "I feel bad. No one wants to take the responsibility."
Finally, the couple went to the neighboring state of Kansas, located less than 25 miles north of Bartlesville, where they each passed a Kansas exam that tested their driving skills using graphic symbols rather than language, Hassan Sharifi said.
"There was no translation needed," he said. Once they returned to Oklahoma, they exchanged their Kansas driver's licenses to Oklahoma licenses and are now both legally licensed to drive in the state, he said.
The formal complaint was filed with the government by Hassan Sharifi's son, Payam Sharifi, a senior in economics at the University of Oklahoma.
The chief legal counsel for the Department of Public Safety, Wellon Poe, said the agency plans to formally respond to the complaint later this month.
"I think we've acted correctly and properly," Poe said. He said the incident is the only time the state has ever been asked to provide its driver's license test in Farsi.
Poe said the complaint could be dismissed after the agency responds or the government could order state officials to take corrective action to comply with federal civil rights requirements.
If the state does not comply, it could be penalized by the withholding of federal transportation money.