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In Tennessee, Black immigrants navigate a tricky course to a coveted driver's license

Vehicles travel on Interstate 240 after the morning rush hour on a weekday in Memphis, Tenn. Highways are the fastest — and in some cases, the only — way to get from one place to another in the sprawling city.
Ariel Cobbert for NPR
Vehicles travel on Interstate 240 after the morning rush hour on a weekday in Memphis, Tenn. Highways are the fastest — and in some cases, the only — way to get from one place to another in the sprawling city.

When Edwin Musafiri moved to the U.S. from Zambia, he said people had a lot of questions for him: "You came from Africa Africa?" "Were you around real giraffes?" "How do you like the food here?" "What do you think of city living?"

In fact, Musafiri had come from Lusaka — the capital of Zambia, a city of more than 3 million people. A city, he says, that was "70%" like Memphis, Tenn., his new home: People ate pizza and fast food. The streets looked fairly similar. Giraffes, for the most part, did not factor into everyday life.

There was a profound difference, though, that complicated Musafiri's first months in Memphis last year, one he hadn't anticipated. The sprawling city stretches about 320 square miles. There are no subways, and bus and trolley service is limited. And like many others in his immigrant community, Musafiri didn't know how to drive.

In many parts of the U.S., the ability to drive and access to a car determine a whole host of lifestyle factors — where you work, how long your commute takes, what time you can leave your house, what time you can no longer get back home. Even where you buy groceries and how much you buy at one time.

The hurdles can be exacerbated in some immigrant and refugee communities. Getting a driver's license sometimes has more to do with English fluency than the ability to operate a car. Further, navigating the dynamics of even a routine traffic stop has long been a delicate dance, particularly for African American men. For Black immigrants, especially those not fluent in English, these factors can combine to create a unique set of challenges.


"I'm someone who likes to support myself," Musafiri says. "I don't always like to depend on other people." But for a while, he and his roommates had no other choice. When groceries ran out, they searched around for a ride to the store. If no one was available, they waited — sometimes until the next day — to get food. It was stifling. And there were limits to where he could work, too.

Today, 21% of Black people in the U.S. are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. And since 2000, migration from Africa has fueled the bulk of growth in the foreign-born Black population, according to the Pew Research Center. Regionally, the greatest share of those immigrants now live in the South — and Tennessee, where Musafiri resides, has seen the fastest growth in its Black immigrant population of any state in the region.

But even though the presence of immigrant communities in Tennessee has become more commonplace, there are still some recurring — and sometimes unexpected — challenges that members of these groups face. Things like finding decent housing in a school district with resources for international students. Access to language classes and job training. Help signing up for health care. And in many places, access to consistent transportation.

Public transportation woes drove a community leader to act

Population-wise, Memphis is a midsize city, home to about 630,000 people. But geographically, it's huge. Here's one way to think about it: Memphis has slightly fewer people than Boston, but a land mass greater than Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cleveland combined, says Charlie Santo, chair of the Department of City & Regional Planning at the University of Memphis.

That layout makes the city extremely difficult to navigate without a car because public transportation options are so limited. The Memphis Area Transportation Authority receives only a small portion of the city's annual budget, according to Andrew Guthrie, a University of Memphis assistant professor who studies transportation justice. In 2019, the last normal budget year before COVID-19, MATA was allotted $59 million, Guthrie says, "which is tiny in the grand scheme of U.S. metro areas. And when you have that little money, it's very, very hard to get service on the street."

The morning rush hour is over on I-240 in Memphis. Highways like this bisect sections of the city, making it difficult to get from one neighborhood to the other on foot or by bike.
/ Ariel Cobbert for NPR
Ariel Cobbert for NPR
The morning rush hour is over on I-240 in Memphis. Highways like this bisect sections of the city, making it difficult to get from one neighborhood to the other on foot or by bike.

The public transit service that does exist is largely concentrated around Poplar Avenue, a thoroughfare lined with estate-style homes with huge yards and hundred-year-old oak trees. Poplar is fairly centrally located and runs all the way downtown, where tourists can go to bars and restaurants, or stroll along the Mississippi River. The neighborhoods abutting Poplar tend to be whiter and wealthier than the city as a whole. But getting to other parts of the city via public transportation is much more difficult. Guthrie's research has shown that the Blackest, poorest neighborhoods tend to be the least likely to be served by public transportation.

And in Memphis, even centrally located communities can come with challenges. Binghampton is a neighborhood that's seen a lot of change in recent years. It's long been predominantly Black and has become a place where many new Black immigrant families have settled. But it's located near the center of the city, far from a lot of the biggest employers — such as FedEx — that have large warehouses on the outskirts of the city.

So people find other ways to get around the city. They walk, although large stretches of the city have no sidewalks. They bike, though bike lines come and go. They develop elaborate carpool systems. In emergencies, they use rideshare services like Uber and Lyft, though those can quickly become prohibitively expensive. Ultimately, in Guthrie's estimation, "It's just not possible to say that carless Memphians have a functional right to the city. They're denied it."

Musafiri understood that reality almost immediately. He was living it. So when he wasn't working, he studied hard for his learner's permit test. And he passed — on his first try, to the shock of many of his companions. He'd heard countless stories, he says, of people who had taken the test four or five times before they passed. "So I just prepared," he says. "It was that bad that I was prepared in all ways." It helped, too, that Musafiri's English is good since Tennessee offers the test in only a handful of languages — none of them among the most widely spoken in Africa.

But there were other hurdles. Musafiri needed access to a car to practice for the skills test. He needed time behind the wheel. And he needed someone to teach him.

That's where Isaac James came in.

Isaac James is director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the Memphis Refugee Empowerment Program. In addition to the more traditional parts of his job, James sometimes teaches new immigrants how to drive.
/ Ariel Cobbert for NPR
Ariel Cobbert for NPR
Isaac James is director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the Memphis Refugee Empowerment Program. In addition to the more traditional parts of his job, James sometimes teaches new immigrants how to drive.

James has been teaching immigrants and refugees to drive since 2014. It's one of the many unofficial side roles that he's taken on as DEI director at Memphis' Refugee Empowerment Program, or REP.

It all started when a group of new refugee families got connected with REP. A few people found jobs at the same warehouse, but they weren't able to drive. So, James says, they made arrangements to carpool with a co-worker in exchange for gas money.

But their colleague wouldn't always show up when it came time to leave work. With no explanation, the group would be left stranded and waiting. To make matters more difficult, they all worked the night shift. So some days, around 4 or 5 in the morning, they were stuck with no way of getting home. They would wind up calling REP. James or his mother, Ruth Lomo, who founded REP in 2003, would pick them up.

"And that hurt," James says. "Not the fact that I had to wake up. But you had a transaction which only half of it was done, right? So that individual exploited you into taking money from you, and not holding up his end of the bargain. And refugees and immigrants are continuously exploited because they have a need, which is transportation."

Getting a driver's license can depend on what language you speak

James came to the U.S. as a refugee himself when he was 5 years old. He and his family moved from what's now South Sudan in 2001. He has seen the immense hurdles that refugees have to overcome just to do things like getting to and from work. To watch as someone tried to make a quick buck off of people infuriated him. So he decided to teach them how to drive themselves.

But as the lessons started, it became clear to James that learning how to operate a motor vehicle was the least of his students' obstacles.

In fact, James says, many of the people he interacts with come to the U.S. already knowing how to drive, because they've driven in their country of origin. But getting a license often winds up being more of a language test than a driving skills or knowledge assessment. The Tennessee learner's permit test is offered in five languages: English, Spanish, German, Korean and Japanese. In neighboring Mississippi, you can take the permit test in 10 languages. In Kentucky, to the north, it's 21, including Arabic, Somali, Thai and Albanian.

Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Isaac James greets children at the Memphis Refugee Empowerment Program on a Wednesday in February.
/ Ariel Cobbert for NPR
Ariel Cobbert for NPR
Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Isaac James greets children at the Memphis Refugee Empowerment Program on a Wednesday in February.

The languages that Tennessee offers the test in don't always line up with the greatest need. Consider, the state has about 30,000 Arabic speakers, compared with about 5,000 Korean speakers. Tennessee Lookout reporter Dulce Torres Guzman has written about the fight to offer the test in Arabic. But Guzman spoke to leaders from local activist organizations who assert that efforts to get that test added have been slow-walked, because of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment.

Other languages are spoken in smaller numbers, which means that organizing to add any particular language can be a challenge. As of 2021, there were about 8,000 Swahili speakers in Tennessee, for instance, according to a report from the Migration Policy Institute. Another 6,500 spoke Amharic, Somali, or other Afro-Asiatic languages. Another 6,000 spoke Yoruba, Twi, Igbo, or other languages of Western Africa.

There have been efforts to expand access. In 2022, Tennessee state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat, sponsored a bill to allow interpreters to "assist an applicant in translating the required examination for a driver license when the applicant does not read or understand English or when the required examination is not available in the language principally spoken by the applicant." That bill failed in the state House.

Yarbro has said that he hopes to reintroduce the bill this year, but he's also said he'd prefer to see the issue resolved outside of the state House. "It could become just another political issue that's red meat in the sort of divisive debate that we're having in the country over immigration," he told WKNO in 2019.

The Tennessee Department of Motor Vehicles also has the option to add other testing languages without a legislative mandate, an option that an official at the Tennessee Department of Safety estimated would cost between $3,000 and $5,000 per language.

These hurdles can leave a lot of people in a bind. Some make their way to neighboring states to take the test — though that's only a temporary solution, since residents of Tennessee eventually need a Tennessee license. Others try over and over again in Tennessee.

But for some, not having a license is not always reason enough not to drive. For one thing, the financial cost of not having a car can be astronomical. In a 2016 paper about transportation and justice in Memphis, Santo wrote:

"National trends show only slight differences in median income for workers who commute via public transportation versus those who drive to work. (The national median income for driving commuters is about $35,000 compared to $31,000 for transit users.) But in Memphis, a low density, sprawling city, with a heavy reliance on logistics jobs, the earnings gap between transit riders and drivers is vast. Census data from 2012 shows that in the Memphis metro area, the median income of those who relied on public transportation was $16,450 — less than half the $34,200 median income of those who drove to work."

For reference, in 2012, the federal poverty line for a family of four was $23,050.

More recently, Guthrie examined job access for Memphians by neighborhood, based on their ability to access transportation. He says that in many neighborhoods, if you don't have access to a car, you don't have access to "hundreds of jobs" or even "thousands of jobs." You might have access to only a handful. "So yeah, the degree of transit inaccessibility in Memphis really is exceptional," he says.

For Musafiri, those constraints were obvious. He was restricted to working at places where he could either walk or get a ride. So while his dream was to work with computers, his first few months in the U.S. last year were spent working warehouse jobs, at Amazon and DHL.

And a lot of immigrants and refugees wind up "between a rock and a hard place," James says. Their options are often, "If I don't drive, then I rely on a system that isn't equipped to assist me in the needs that I have. If I do drive, I have the possibility to retain work. I can take myself to work. I could take myself to doctor appointments. I could take my kids to school."

But, James says, driving also opens up a whole other universe of concerns for immigrants and refugees.

Black immigrants learn to drive while navigating potentially tricky obstacles

Driving without a license in Tennessee is a class C misdemeanor, an offense that can lead to a fine and up to 30 days of jail time. But for someone who is not a citizen — even if they have legal immigration status in the U.S. — a misdemeanor conviction can be used as evidence in removal proceedings. Black immigrants have an added layer of systemic bias to contend with. Nationally, Black drivers are 20% more likely to be pulled over in traffic stops than white drivers. (Latino drivers were pulled over at the same or lower rates as white drivers.)

And Black immigrants are disproportionately deported on criminal grounds. As of 2013, "more than 75% of Black immigrants were removed from the United States based on criminal grounds, compared to less than 50% of immigrants overall," according to a report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. In the immigrant rights community, it's become referred to as the "prison-to-deportation pipeline."

In Memphis, residents who drive to work have far more job opportunities — and better average pay — than people who rely on other means of transportation.
/ Ariel Cobbert for NPR
Ariel Cobbert for NPR
In Memphis, residents who drive to work have far more job opportunities — and better average pay — than people who rely on other means of transportation.

There's another type of fear that may be animating folks as they make the decision to drive — longstanding concerns about police brutality. Earlier this year, in January, Tyre Nichols, a young Black man, died after being beaten by Memphis police officers after he was pulled over for what police said was reckless driving. But even before Nichols' death became national news, immigrant rights activists around Tennessee expressed concern that with Black immigrants, traffic stops can be especially high stakes if there is a language barrier. If someone can't understand the instructions that an officer is giving, or convey information that they're asked for, the fear is that situations have the potential to escalate in upsetting and potentially dangerous ways.

James has these realities swimming through his head whenever he gets behind the wheel with a student. He essentially has a version of "the talk" with them — a conversation that involves conveying nuanced, high stakes information about navigating a social and racial landscape that immigrants may not be familiar with, all while showing them how to use their turn signals.

"So in those sessions, it's being honest and vulnerable," James says. "My goal is to equip people with the knowledge and the skillset to be able to handle the road, to be able to feel confident in doing [that] to empower themselves and their family.

"But I also need to prepare them right for what the law might do in case of, you know, lack of insurance, lack of permit, lack of license and things like that," James says.

Musafiri, so far, has been fortunate. After working with James, he was able to get his driver's license. It meant that he regained much of his independence. He can go grocery shopping whenever he wants, for one. And he switched jobs to one he really wanted — working with computers.

But another important benefit for Musafiri was knowing that his family wouldn't have to go through what he experienced when he arrived in the U.S. He wanted to be able to show up for his parents and siblings, to ease their transition when they joined him in Memphis last September.

And he's done just that. Now, he's pulling an Isaac James, if you will — teaching his family how to drive. He says his dad is pretty good (he drove back in Zambia), and his sister — well, she needs to get better about checking her mirrors.

Until then, he'll drive them all to work — and pick them up. It takes about five minutes to drop off his sister, and 15 for his parents.

"Walking, I think it might take a couple of hours," Musafiri says. "On public transportation — there's no transportation that goes there."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.