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'Victory': Georgia removes unlawful barriers for Puerto Ricans seeking driver's licenses

A Puerto Rican man arrested and accused of forging documents said it was "very emotional...and should have been done right from the beginning.”
People wait outside the Georgia Department of Driver Services on July 6, 2012, in Atlanta.
People wait outside the Georgia Department of Driver Services on July 6, 2012, in Atlanta.John Spink / AP file

Kenneth Cabán Gonzalez, a Puerto Rico-born U.S. citizen living in Georgia, won a legal victory Monday granting him the right to something he has fought for almost two and a half years: a state-issued driver’s license.

As a result of a lawsuit filed last July, the Georgia Department of Driver Services has agreed to implement a series of changes to remove barriers for Puerto Ricans who have moved to Georgia and are attempting to obtain driver’s licenses. These changes include the nixing of a so-called “Puerto Rico interview guide,” which quizzed individuals on their knowledge of the island in order to prove they are from the U.S. territory — an additional step in the process not required for U.S. citizens born in the mainland.

Monday’s win represents the end of a long battle for Cabán Gonzalez, who first set foot in the Hinesville DDS office in October 2017, where officials accused him of submitting false documents.

“It’s something very emotional for me,” he told NBC News of finally being able to obtain a state-issued driver’s license. “But it’s something I also recognize should have been done right from the beginning.”

DDS officials initially withheld his identification documents — including his original driver’s license, social security card, and birth certificate — before initiating an investigation against him. Soon after, officials arrested Cabán Gonzalez and held him in jail for three days, according to the lawsuit. He was charged with fraud and forgery felonies, though these charges were later dropped.

In December, the department fired a deputy director and demoted a senior manager after a Georgia Bureau of Investigations’ probe revealed they had not followed protocol.

A Puerto Rico "quiz," fears of confiscated documents

Atteeyah Hollie, a senior attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the lawsuit alongside LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said she was struck when she went to Hinesville and realized that many Puerto Rican residents had chosen to forgo driver’s licenses rather than go to the DDS.

“They feared that they would have their documents taken,” she said. “They knew that the possibility of being arrested, or prosecuted and just maligned, was very real.”

With this victory, the attorneys behind the case hope it will have a widespread impact.

“He has affected change for the entire community,” Kira Romero-Craft, the managing attorney of LatinoJustice PRLDF’s Southeast office, said of Cabán Gonzalez. “We hope that this victory will resonate, and Puerto Ricans who decide to come to Georgia — whether it’s to learn, to reside permanently, to come for a temporary stay — will feel empowered and feel part of that community.”

Romero-Craft said she felt disbelief when she first heard about Cabán Gonzalez’s case. She listed some of the questions that people had been asked by the DDS to prove they are Puerto Rican: What do Puerto Ricans call an orange? What color are the uniforms of police officers? There were trick questions, too, such as the name of a nonexistent beach in an inland city, or the length of a nonexistent train trip.

According to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Georgia "went to unusual lengths to combat fraud, compared with other states."

While Cabán Gonzalez was not subjected to this quiz, he knew others in his community who were, and believed it was an “unjust” and “racist” policy. He later added that he was concerned residents of the state who didn’t speak English were being marginalized and dismissed.

“Just because we don’t speak English doesn’t mean we have any less right to express ourselves or be heard,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean that makes us any less of an American or U.S. citizen than anyone else.”

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