A lawsuit accuses the Georgia Department of Driver Services of illegally discriminating against Puerto Rican applicants.

GBI to investigate Puerto Rican discrimination allegations

The GBI will investigate the state’s decision to deny a driver’s license to a Puerto Rican applicant.

Kenneth Caban Gonzalez applied for a Georgia driver’s license after moving to Hinesville in 2017. Instead of giving him one, the Department of Driver Services kept his birth certificate and other identification and later charged him with providing fraudulent documents. Caban Gonzalez said the documents were legitimate, and recently filed a federal lawsuit claiming DDS discriminates against Puerto Rican applicants.

Now DDS Commissioner Spencer Moore has asked the GBI to investigate his agency’s handling of the incident.

The GBI confirmed the investigation to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying it would “look into DDS processes and determine if any laws were violated.”

Attorneys with the groups LatinoJustice and the Southern Center for Human Rights — which are representing Caban Gonzalez — issued a statement saying they “support the GBI investigation into the practices of DDS, and remain committed to a system where Puerto Ricans are treated the same as any U.S. citizen applying for an identification card or driver license in Georgia.”

Caban Gonzalez sought a driver’s license at DDS’ Hinesville office in October 2017. To prove his identity, the lawsuit says he submitted a valid Puerto Rico birth certificate and driver’s license, plus a Social Security card. He also submitted a pay stub to demonstrate his Georgia residency.

The department retained his birth certificate, driver’s license and Social Security card and did not issue a license. A few days later, it asked him to come to Savannah for an interview. When he arrived, he was arrested on allegations he provided false documents.

Those charges were later dropped. But the Department of Driver’s Services didn’t return his documents until last week. And it still hasn’t issued him a driver’s license.

The lawsuit says the department illegally discriminates against U.S. citizens of Puerto Rican descent. Among other things, it says the department has used a written test of Puerto Rican knowledge to determine whether some applicants are from the island – the kind of test not administered to mainland residents.

The department’s actions appear to be a response to genuine problems with fraudulent Puerto Rican birth certificates. Immigrants in the United States illegally have tried to use fraudulent documents to obtain driver’s licenses – and the ability to work and other benefits that come with them.

But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation recently found Georgia has gone to unusual lengths to curtail such fraud, and its actions have left it vulnerable to accusations of illegal discrimination.

DDS Communications Director Shevondah Leslie said Moore requested the GBI investigation because "we did not think it would be fair for investigators to review themselves.”

Leslie said agency officials did not authorize the Puerto Rican knowledge test. She said the agency’s policy is “to treat all customers with dignity and respect.”

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