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Georgia accused of quizzing Puerto Ricans seeking driver's licenses

The state is testing Puerto Rican applicants on their island knowledge and sometimes withholding their IDs as part of a "fraud review."
Image: The flags of the U.S. and Puerto Rico fly outside the Capitol building in San Juan
The flags of the U.S. and Puerto Rico fly outside the Capitol building in San Juan.Alvin Baez / Reuters file

It has been over 600 days since the Georgia Department of Driver’s Services failed to return identity documents to Kenneth Cabán, a Puerto Rico-born U.S. citizen living in Georgia, after he applied for a state-issued driver’s license, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Driver’s Services in Georgia is now being sued by Cabán for “unlawful and discriminatory treatment of American citizens from Puerto Rico,” according to the suit.

LatinoJustice PRLDEF helped Cabán bring his case to court after the national civil rights group learned that the Georgia agency had been seizing identity documents presented by Puerto Ricans who came into their offices to get state driver’s license. Some of these documents include IDs 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.”

According to the suit, the Georgia agency retains documentation from Puerto Rico-born driver’s license applicants to have them “flagged for fraud review.”

The lawsuit says the agency also keeps a Puerto Rican applicants’ documents if they determine that the person failed to answer questions about the U.S. territory, including the name of a meat-filled plantain fritter and the name of the frog that is native to Puerto Rico — something that is not required of U.S. citizens born in a state.

A question on crusty rice at Driver's Services?

Vasquez said that employees at the Georgia Department of Driver’s Services (DDS) use a “DDS Puerto Rican Interview Guide” that includes questions about the meaning of colloquial terms such as “pegao,” or crusty rice, and additional trick questions such as the name of an inland city’s nonexistent beach and how long is the nonexistent train ride between San Juan and Fajardo.

“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, senior attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, who is working on the case alongside LatinoJustice.

According to Vasquez, multiple Puerto Ricans have been facing what Cabán experienced at the Georgia Department of Driver’s Services for at least two years. However, many have a hard time coming forward with their complaints due to fear of retribution, he said.

About 40,000 Puerto Ricans born in the island live in Georgia, according to Census.

“DDS has not been served with the complaint,” Susan Sports, public information officer at the Georgia Department of Driver’s Services, told NBC News in a statement. “All issuances including those for applicants from Puerto Rico are handled in accordance with Georgia Statute and Federal Real ID requirements.”

However, the lawsuit alleges that the agency’s practices fail to comply with constitutionally protected equal protection provisions because it treats Puerto Rico-born American citizens differently than those born in the U.S. mainland, by “not giving them a chance for a fair hearing” if their driver’s license application is denied and making them undergo additional tests “to answer questions about Puerto Rico in order to prove that they are Puerto Rican.”