Lawsuit Alleges Discrimination Against Puerto Ricans Seeking Georgia Drivers License

Jul 6, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On a related subject for just a few minutes, as you may know, conditions in Puerto Rico have spurred thousands of people to leave to seek opportunities on the mainland. Now there are disturbing allegations about how some transplants to the state of Georgia have been treated when they tried to apply for driver's licenses.

A lawsuit was filed this week in federal court on behalf of a man who moved from Puerto Rico to Southeast Georgia in 2017. He applied for a driver's license after waiting at the required 30 days. The man, Kenneth Caban Gonzalez, says that an inspector from the Georgia Department of Driver Services confiscated his documents and asked him a number of trivia questions such as, who is Roberto Clemente, and what is the name of the frog native only to Puerto Rico? He alleges he also asked trick questions such as, where is Caguas beach? There is no beach in Caguas.

The lawsuit accuses the state of violating the Civil Rights Act by holding residents of Puerto Rico to more stringent requirements than it does transplants from other U.S. states. The advocacy group Latino Justice is litigating the case along with the Southern Center for Human Rights. And with us now is Gerry Weber. He's a senior attorney at the Southern Center.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

GERRY WEBER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So Mr. Caban Gonzalez's complaint is particularly disturbing because it says that not only was he subjected to these questions but that his identity documents were confiscated and that he was arrested for forgery. But the first question I would have for you is if you have knowledge of whether other former residents of Puerto Rico who are U.S. citizens had a similar experience.

WEBER: Yes, absolutely. And you can look online, and you can see some of the incidents where people were both arrested for their documents, which are perfectly legitimate documents, and then had those documents seized.

MARTIN: So how many in total? I mean, how many of these cases have you been made aware of so far?

WEBER: Well, we have several instances, and the Department of Driver Services has not been very forthcoming and transparent in our requests for records about the scope of the problem. But in litigation, we'll find that out.

MARTIN: So has the Department of Driver Services responded to the lawsuit? Or have they made any response to the facts that have been presented to them so far?

WEBER: They have not. We have made open records requests. Recently, we heard that Governor Kemp was going to be calling for an investigation into the discrimination. But we haven't had confirmation from DDS about that.

MARTIN: And we know that the governor of Puerto Rico has specifically reached out to his counterpart, the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, to ask him to look into this. Do we know any more about what the - what - you know, what document were they working from, or what legal authority do they claim to do this?

WEBER: Well, they created a directive in 2017, right after Puerto Rico had suffered some terrible tragedies. And so people were moving to Georgia. And Georgia issued a directive that created this set of hoops and hurdles for Puerto Rican American citizens who come to Georgia seeking a new home to get a driver's license.

MARTIN: But why? I mean, do we have any sense of what the motivation was?

WEBER: We don't know the why. We do know the effect. It bears a striking resemblance to the Jim Crow literacy tests. I mean, it's 43 questions ranging from geography to culture to agriculture. I would challenge any citizen of any state in Georgia to pass a test of 43 questions about their state.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, could you just describe for people, you know, what it is - because some people might not find it upsetting. They say, well, you know, maybe they're just trying to determine whether the residents of Puerto Rico who have moved are really from Puerto Rico as opposed to from some other Spanish-speaking place. Could you just describe for people again why this - in your view, this violates the law and is offensive?

WEBER: Well, Puerto Rican American citizens have the same right to transfer their lives, move to another state and have a driver's license as Texans or Ohioans. It's a matter of federal law. It's a matter of the federal Constitution. And Puerto Rican citizens in Georgia are subject to a different set of rules that are much more restrictive.

MARTIN: That's Gerry Weber. He's a senior attorney at the Southern Center. He's also a professor at Emory University School of Law.

Mr. Weber, thanks so much for talking with us today.

WEBER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.