ATLANTA — A federal class-action lawsuit was filed in Atlanta Tuesday alleging that the state of Georgia is actively discriminating against driver's license applicants from Puerto Rico by treating them differently from other US citizens who apply for licenses.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Kenneth Cabán Gonzalez, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to southeast Georgia in 2017. Cabán Gonzalez says he applied for a license with the Georgia Department of Driver Services and they took his identity documents, and kept them--and he has still not been issued a drivers license.
In order to transfer an out-of-state driver's license to Georgia, ordinarily a driver from another state would need to provide their current out-of-state license, documentation of their identity, residential address, full social security number and US citizenship or proof of lawful status in the United States. The lawsuit says Caban Gonzalez complied with all of those requirements.
On Wednesday, following the filing of the suit, Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, issued a statement asking that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp deal with the irregularities right away.
“A lawsuit filed yesterday in Atlanta, Georgia, alleges that Puerto Ricans are being treated unequally in the State of Georgia when procuring essential government services such as obtaining a driver’s license. According to the claim, Puerto Ricans are required to answer questions related to amphibians and cuisine in order to procure government services," Rosselló said in a statement.
“This is absurd. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and cannot be treated unequally in any U.S. jurisdiction," he said. “The Government of Puerto Rico takes these allegations very seriously and, if true, I ask Georgia Governor Brian Kemp to address the disturbing irregularities immediately. The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico cannot be subject to illogical and illegal requirements when procuring government services.”
11Alive reached out to Gov. Kemp’s office and a spokesperson responded Wednesday night with the following statement:
"Governor Kemp expects state employees to follow the law and treat every constituent with dignity and respect. Our team has spoken with DDS Commissioner Spencer Moore and asked him to conduct a full investigation into these claims. Given that this matter involves pending litigation, we will decline to further discuss any specifics involving this case.
According to the national civil rights group LatinoJustice PRLDEF, some of the documents involved include identification issued by the Puerto Rican government, birth certificates and social security cards.
“Imagine going to a new state and being treated less than a human,” Jorge Vasquez, associate counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, told NBC News. “Imagine being told: ‘We’re going to keep your paperwork …’ Now you are stuck in a new place with no way to start a life.”
The lawsuit says that the documents from Puerto Ricans are retained by the DDS and flagged for fraud review under department rules.
In addition, the Puerto Rican applicants are required to answer questions about the island, which applicants from the mainland United States are not required to answer, according to the lawsuit. Questions include "identifying 'what a meat filled with plantain fritter' is called; where a specific beach is located; and 'the name of the frog (that is) native only to PR.'"
“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,” Gerry Weber, senior attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, who is working on the case alongside LatinoJustice, told NBC News.
When reached on Wednesday, Georgia DDS spokesperson Susan Sports told 11Alive that the Department of Driver Services had not been served with the complaint as of this point.
"DDS has not been served with the complaint you referenced," Sports said in an email statement on Wednesday. "All issuances including those for applicants from Puerto Rico are handled in accordance with Georgia Statute and Federal Real ID requirements."
The lawsuit says Cabán Gonzalez initially applied for a drivers license on October 31, 2017, at the DDS office in Hinesville. It says the staff there kept his Puerto Rico driver's license, his original birth certificate and his Social Security card and told him he would be notified when he would be able to pick them up.
Several days later, a DDS employee texted Cabán Gonzalez asking him to report to the DDS office in Savannah for an interview. When he arrived, Cabán Gonzalez was arrested and accused of providing false documents. He is denying the accusations. Those criminal charges remain pending. His Puerto Rican driver's license, his birth certificate and his Social Security card were not returned.
According to the lawsuit, in June 2018, Cabán Gonzalez obtained a new birth certificate from Puerto Rico, along with a new social security card. Once he acquired those, he applied for a state identification card. The DDS finally issued him a non-driver identification card in January 2019, the suit said.
The DDS still has not issued Cabán Gonzalez a Georgia driver's license or explained why they believe his original identity documents are false, according to the lawsuit. He has also not been provided an opportunity for a hearing on the matter.
Finally, the DDS has not explained why his identity documents were sufficient for a non-driver's state identification card, despite the fact that the same forms of identification are required by the department for the issuance of both documents.
About 40,000 Puerto Ricans born on the island live in Georgia, according to the US Census Bureau.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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