Georgia agency under scrutiny for treatment of Puerto Ricans

The Georgia Department of Driver Services has given unusual scrutiny to some Puerto Rican residents who apply for driver’s licenses.

The Georgia Department of Driver Services has given unusual scrutiny to some Puerto Rican residents who apply for driver’s licenses.

Georgia’s zeal for combating illegal immigration has left it vulnerable to accusations that it violates the civil rights of Puerto Ricans who apply for driver’s licenses, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found.

Trafficking in fraudulent Puerto Rican birth certificates is a persistent problem, and immigrants in the U.S. illegally have tried to use them to obtain driver’s licenses — and the ability to work and other benefits that come with them. Licensing officials across the country have sought to address the problem. But documents obtained by the newspaper under the state Open Records Act show Georgia has gone to unusual lengths to curtail fraud.

The Georgia Department of Driver Services has subjected certain Puerto Ricans to automatic fraud investigations, confiscating their birth certificates and other documents, the newspaper found. The agency has also quizzed those applicants on Puerto Rican politics, geography and culture — using some questions that even one Puerto Rican expert said he can’t answer.

It's unclear how many people have been investigated or if anyone has been improperly denied a driver's license. But Georgia's methods led two human rights groups to file a federal lawsuit this month, accusing the DDS of illegally discriminating against Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens.

The practices have also drawn a rebuke from Puerto Rico's governor. And they've evoked haunting echoes of an era when Georgia and other Southern states used literacy tests and other practices to deny African Americans the right to vote.

“I don’t want to blame everything on racism, because there’s a structural issue” with the birth certificates, said Charles Venator Santiago, the president-elect of the Puerto Rican Studies Association and an expert on U.S. territorial law. “But if Georgia is requiring people to pass a test to identify their culture, that’s a civil rights violation — having a double standard.”

State officials insist they comply with all federal and state laws. But DDS Communications Director Shevondah Leslie said the department's leadership was not aware of the test. And the DDS has launched an internal investigation at the request of Gov. Brian Kemp.

“Our commissioner (Spencer Moore) takes this seriously. It is his expectation that all customers be treated with dignity and respect,” Leslie said. “That’s across the board, for every person.”

Significant fraud

A key factor in the controversy is the way Puerto Rico has handled birth certificates. Traditionally, the documents were required to enroll in island schools and to join churches, sports teams and other groups. So the Puerto Rican government distributed numerous certificates that wound up filed away in unsecured offices across the country.

That made them easy to steal and sell — often to immigrants seeking entry to the United States. A Puerto Rican birth certificate can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market.

Fraudulent documents became so prevalent that in 2010 the Puerto Rican government invalidated all birth certificates and required millions of residents to obtain new ones. It also tightened rules for handling the documents.

That was supposed to solve the fraud problem. But the trade in fraudulent Puerto Rican birth certificates has persisted.

Compounding the challenge for licensing officials has been an exodus of Puerto Rican residents to the U.S. mainland, brought on in part by economic hardship and — in 2017 — by Hurricane Maria.

Georgia's Puerto Rican population more than doubled from 2000 to 2015, to about 87,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The bureau estimates an additional 3,345 Puerto Ricans arrived in Georgia in 2017, the year of the hurricane.

Many of them seek driver’s licenses when they arrive, and the stakes can be high.

For security and other reasons, governments want to ensure applicants are who they say they are. One example: 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had obtained identification documents from state motor vehicle offices, many through fraudulent means, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The stakes are high for the new arrivals as well. With a driver’s license, you can drive a car and get to work. A license also serves as an all-purpose identification card to present when you vote, open a bank account or buy a beer. Though it’s not required for all those purposes — a government-issued ID card also will work — it generally makes life easier.

“We know that getting a legitimate driver’s license provides access to a lot of things in our society,” said Ian Grossman, a vice president of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. “It’s the keys to the kingdom.”

Unusual scrutiny

The Georgia Department of Driver Services serves as the gatekeeper for that “kingdom.”

Like most states, Georgia does not grant driver’s licenses to immigrants in the U.S. illegally. And like other states, it does not accept Puerto Rican birth certificates issued before July 2010.

But the AJC found that the DDS has gone to unusual lengths to screen Puerto Rican applicants.

Beginning in 2012, it began to automatically flag certain Puerto Rican applicants for fraud reviews. The policy covered applicants with Puerto Rican birth certificates issued after July 2010 who did not already have a driver’s license from one of the 50 states, according to an agency manager’s memorandum.

The memo instructed employees to retain all identification documents submitted by such applicants. It directed employees to “select fraud” in a drop-down computer program menu and to contact the agency’s Office of Investigative Services “to obtain a case number.” Employee training materials reinforced that message.

Documents show the agency later backed away from automatic fraud referrals. A December 2017 memo from the DDS’ deputy director of investigations indicated employees can issue a driver’s license to applicants from the affected group — but only if they successfully answered certain questions.

Unless the customer has left or is unavailable, “you should go ahead and speak with the applicant and subject them to the PRBC (Puerto Rican birth certificate) line of questioning we use,” the memo said.

Employees could issue a license “if the subject answers the questions appropriately,” the memo said. If not, the memo directs employees to confiscate the applicant’s documents and withhold the license.

Leslie, the DDS spokeswoman, said the procedure is a subject of the agency’s internal review and declined to comment further.

The 2017 memo does not elaborate on the questions the Puerto Rican applicants must answer. But the AJC obtained from the DDS several variations of an “interview guide” that appears to have originated with the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service, the law enforcement arm of the State Department. An introduction to the guide says it’s used “to assess the validity of claims to U.S. citizenship by birth in Puerto Rico.”

The DDS appears to have placed its own logo on the guide, which includes dozens of questions and other material. The questions cover politics ("Who is the current governor of Puerto Rico?"), geography ("Where is Caguas Beach?") and other topics ("What is the name of the frog native only to PR?").

Venator Santiago, the Puerto Rican studies expert, said some of the “correct” answers listed on the test are wrong. For example, Pedro Rossello is listed as governor, but he left office in 2001.

He said some questions seem too obscure to determine whether someone can obtain a driver’s license.

“I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I know almost everything,” Venator Santiago said. “I couldn’t answer five or six (questions) myself.”

Leslie could provide no information about who decided to adopt the test or how widely it is used within the department.

“But we definitely want to make it clear that document does not represent DDS,” she said. “That document was never approved by the executive team, by the commissioner.”

Headed to court

Venator Santiago said he’s not aware of other states that use such tests or automatically investigate the license applications of Puerto Ricans. Neither is Kira Romero-Craft, an attorney with the group LatinoJustice.

Driver’s license agencies in four states with Puerto Rican populations larger than Georgia’s — California, Illinois, New York and North Carolina — said they do not use tactics like those in Georgia. Florida and Texas officials did not respond by deadline.

Grossman, the vice president of the motor vehicle association, said he couldn’t compare Georgia’s practices with those of other states in any detail. But he said licensing agencies generally focus on “verifying the document,” not the immigration status of the individual.

This month two civil rights groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Atlanta claiming Georgia's practices violate civil rights, equal protection and other rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and federal law.

The lawsuit says Kenneth Caban Gonzalez, a Puerto Rico native and Hinesville resident, was illegally denied a driver’s license in 2017, then unjustly arrested and accused of trying to obtain a license with a fraudulent birth certificate.

The lawsuit says Caban Gonzalez’s documents were legitimate, and the charges were later dropped, court records obtained by the AJC show. But he still has not received a driver’s license.

Romero-Craft, one of his attorneys, said she’s aware of other Puerto Ricans who have also run into trouble obtaining a license in Georgia.

“Folks are scared,” she said. “This has been happening for many, many years.”

The DDS says it has not tracked the number of Puerto Rican applicants rejected. It has declined to comment on Caban Gonzalez’s case because of the pending litigation.

But Leslie pushed back against the portrayal of the department as racist or discriminatory.

“Our commissioner is not that type of person. Our team is not that type of team,” she said. “It’s our expectation that everybody is treated fairly.”

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