Manuel Castillo, a California trucker with twenty years experience, was stopped and ticketed by an Alabama state trooper for failure to speak English well enough.
Castillo, shown in the AP photo above with his truck, was on his way from Georgia back to California with a load of onions when he was stopped in Alabama for a “routine inspection.” Castillo has a Spanish accent, but he readily answered the trooper’s questions in English. However the officer, who could find no other violations to charge Castillo with, judged the driver’s English to be insufficient – a violation of federal trucking regulations – and wrote Castillo a $500 ticket, the maximum fine for this particular offense. Castillo paid the ticket – tickets are part of the cost of doing business for a trucker – and drove on home.
U. S. Department of Transportation regulations require commercial truck drivers “to be able to read and speak the English language sufficiently to” speak with the public, understand road signs, respond to “official inquiries,” and keep records. The states are charged with enforcing these requirements.
A Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration pamphlet outlines the kinds of things truckers should be able to say, in English, if they want to keep on driving:
Not all government agencies enforce an English-only policy. In fact, last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the Salvation Army for requiring its workers to speak English. But many conservative congressmen were outraged that a government agency was attacking, not defending, the English language, and in December, 2007, Republicans in the House of Representatives offered a resolution, H. Con. Res. 277, condemning the EEOC’s action and asking the agency to desist in its efforts to drive English from the workplace.
After rehearsing the usual whereases about English being the glue that holds this fragile nation together, the resolution noted, “there may be rare circumstances in which an English-only employment rule is a pretext for intentional national origin discrimination, but in most cases such an employment rule has little or nothing to do with a person’s national origin.”
But it seems that national origin may be just what the Alabama state trooper and his fellow officers have been targeting. 17% of the nation’s truck drivers, and 11% of its bus drivers, are Hispanic, and authorities gave them 25,230 tickets for insufficient English last year. While government officials insist that they’re not waging a campaign against Mexican truck drivers, these numbers suggest a concerted effort by the Department of Transportation to criminalize driving while Spanish.
To reinforce this message, the DOT pamphlet on the offense of insufficient English, with a picture of a happy Hispanic posing in front of a big rig, clearly suggests that the department’s English-only policy has quite a lot to do with “a person’s national origin.”
Many states allow drivers to take part of the written part of their license test in languages other than English. The FMCSA, on the other hand, is proposing to tighten its language regulations by making drivers pass their road test and vehicle inspection in English before they get their license.
Drivers and regulators alike agree that a basic command of English is a business and safety necessity for all drivers – not just truckers. Furthermore, it may be obvious to a police officer, and to anyone else, if a driver speaks no English at all. But since there’s no tube a driver can breathe into that will produce a readout of the amount of English that they know, police officers have no objective standard for assessing whether a driver speaks English well enough to continue safely to their final destination.
Because, as the FMCSA pamphlet further suggests, Castillo, who speaks enough English to have survived twenty years of trucking and has no tickets or violations on his record, is lucky the cop who stopped him didn’t yank his license for driving under the influence of Spanish: