A man is accusing Georgia of discriminating in doling out driver’s licenses and requiring Puerto Ricans to answer trivia questions about fritters, frogs, hillbilly hats, baseball players and customs on their native island.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the US District Court for Northern Georgia, accuses the state’s Department of Driver Services of violating the Civil Rights Act by engaging in “race-based stereotyping and implicit bias against Puerto Ricans.” It seeks unspecified damages.
The lawsuit says Georgia holds residents of Puerto Rico, a commonwealth and unincorporated territory of the United States, to more stringent requirements than it does transplants from American states or the District of Columbia.
The state DDS has not yet received the lawsuit and can’t comment on it, spokeswoman Susan Sports said late Wednesday. However, she said, the department processes all driver’s license applications in accordance with state and federal law.
The quiz and other allegedly discriminatory practices prevent Puerto Ricans living in Georgia from traveling to work, school, doctors and places of worship. They also subject Puerto Ricans to the threat of a $500 fine and a year in prison if they drive without a license, the lawsuit says.
There are likely more than 40 Puerto Ricans with similar claims, according to the lawsuit. Forty plaintiffs is the number required to initiate a class-action lawsuit.
“The so-called quiz, applied to Puerto Rican drivers, bears a strikingly disturbing resemblance to the tests applied by segregationists to block voter registration of people of color,” said Gerry Weber, a senior attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which is litigating the case with the advocacy group, LatinoJustice.
DDS spokeswoman Shevondah Leslie confirmed the quiz questions come from a document the department released to comply with an open records request, but said it “is not an authorized DDS document.” She declined to comment further, citing the litigation.
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Puerto Rico-born Kenneth Caban Gonzalez applied for a driver’s license in Liberty County, in southeast Georgia, on October 31, 2017, after meeting the state’s 30-day residency requirement, according to the lawsuit.
Caban Gonzalez applied for a Georgia license after being pulled over with his Puerto Rico license, for which he was cited and fined $681 — a penalty he cannot pay without a job, according to his lawyers.
Yet when he tried to obtain a Georgia driver’s license, he was subjected to special requirements directed solely toward Puerto Ricans, the lawsuit alleges. A state DDS inspector took his documents, quizzed him via an interpreter and then had him arrested for forgery, LatinoJustice attorney Jorge Vasquez said.
While Leslie said a document included in the lawsuit, titled “Puerto Rican Interview Guide,” was not sanctioned by DDS administrators, the lawsuit claims the guide, containing dozens of questions, was used to quiz applicants on the archipelago. Among its queries:
• How long is the San Juan-Fajardo train ride? (There is no train.)
• Who is Roberto Clemente? (The Puerto Rican-born baseball legend.)
• What is the name of the frog native only to PR? (Coqui.)
• What is a pava? (A straw hat worn by small farmers or hillbillies.)
• What is alcapurria? (A meat-filled plantain fritter.)
• How do you celebrate San Juan Day? (Walk backward into the ocean at midnight.)
A note in the interview guide says the questions are designed to ferret out fraud.
“While this guide can in no way positively determine if a person was born in or lived in Puerto Rico, it will help determine if the individual has a normal base of knowledge of their claimed birthplace,” it says.
Vasquez disagreed with the assertion, saying the exam is “ridiculous and makes no sense.” He likened it a literacy exam, the arbitrary tests administered during Jim Crow to keep black voters from casting ballots.
“To ask someone what celebratory events happen, what beaches are in certain places, is essentially a literacy exam,” Vasquez said. “Imagine asking US citizens questions like that, asking them, ‘Hey, I see you’re in New York, but can you tell me what festival is happening in Texas? Can you tell me what’s happening in Idaho on this day?’ … Those aren’t things that the common person is going to be able to explain.”
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Other examples of Georgia’s allegedly discriminatory practices include flagging Puerto Rican birth certificates for fraud review and refusing to accept any birth certificate issued in Puerto Rico before July 2010, the lawsuit states. (In 2010, in an effort to combat identity fraud, Puerto Ricans were required by law to obtain new birth certificates.)
As part of his 2017 application for a driver’s license, Caban Gonzalez submitted a birth certificate issued in 2014, a valid Puerto Rico driver’s license, a pay stub and his Social Security card to DDS, which the state kept.
“To hold someone’s driver’s license, to hold someone’s birth certificate, to hold someone’s Social Security card, is to hold their livelihood,” Vasquez said, explaining that because his client’s paperwork was confiscated, he wasn’t able to fly home to check on his family after Hurricane Maria wrecked the island.
The month after Caban Gonzalez applied for his license, a DDS inspector texted him asking him to visit the department’s office in Savannah for an interview, but after Caban Gonzalez arrived and took his exam, he was arrested, Vasquez said.
He was charged with first-degree forgery and a count related to making false statements, the lawsuit says.
An online search of Liberty County Superior Court filings turns up no case involving Caban Gonzalez. While LatinoJustice can confirm he was detained, the organization did not provide counsel to Caban Gonzalez in the criminal matter and cannot comment on its status, spokesman Christiaan Perez said.
Because the DDS inspector kept his documents, the lawsuit says, Caban Gonzalez in June 2018 applied for a new birth certificate and Social Security card, which he used to obtain a state ID.
While he received a state identification card in January, he has not heard back on the driver’s license after more than 600 days, according to the lawsuit.
Had he received a denial in that time period, he would’ve been able to appeal the decision before a judge, but because he received no response, he’s left without recourse, it says.
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“Imagine that process: to essentially be a US citizen, to travel to a territory of the US and to be treated significantly different solely because you’re born in Puerto Rico,” Vasquez said, adding that LatinoJustice is unaware of any other state treating Puerto Rican driver’s license applicants in such a way.
The DDS has not explained why it believes the documents Caban Gonzalez originally provided are fake, nor has it explained why it would grant him a state ID — which can be used to board a plane — while refusing to grant him a driver’s license, according to the lawsuit.
“Without a driver’s license, Mr. Caban Gonzales cannot find a job in construction, which he has experience in, because the industry, like many others, requires possession of a valid driver’s license,” the lawsuit says.
“Because Mr. Caban Gonzalez cannot drive, it is difficult and often impossible for Mr. Caban Gonzalez to take his newborn daughter to her pediatric appointments, attend to his own medical needs, go grocery shopping, visit family and friends, attend religious services, and participate in social activities,” it continues.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has weighed in, calling the alleged special requirements “absurd” and demanding that Puerto Ricans receive equal treatment in all US jurisdictions.
“If true, I ask Georgia Governor Brian Kemp to address the disturbing irregularities immediately,” Rosselló said in a statement. “The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico cannot be subject to illogical and illegal requirements when procuring government services.”
There are more than 93,000 Puerto Ricans living in Georgia, according to the 2017 census estimate.