ATLANTA - Documents obtained through an open records request show the birth certificate mandate placed on some Puerto Rican driver’s license applicants in Georgia, and a citizenship quiz allegedly used by the Georgia Department of Drivers Services.
The controversy is at the center of a federal lawsuit filed in Atlanta on Tuesday on behalf of a South Georgia man and other Puerto Ricans who have experienced difficulty in obtaining driver’s licenses since 2017.
Lawsuit: If you’re Puerto Rican, applied for a Georgia driver’s license with birth certificate that predates 2010, was somehow flagged for suspected fraud-these are some the questions you’re answering to prove you’re a U.S. Citizen, eligible for a license: @wsbtv pic.twitter.com/WbP9PBzeLc— Nicole Carr (@NicoleCarrWSB) July 3, 2019
An internal memo dated Dec. 21, 2017 instructs DDS employees not to accept Puerto Rican birth certificates dated before July 1, 2010.
It tells the employees not to forward Puerto Rican birth certificates to the Office of Investigative services unless fraud is suspected, and warns against sharing the memo with customers or offering them legal advice.
The memo came just months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico, forcing able residents to relocate.
A separate questionnaire labeled “DDS Puerto Rican Interview Guide” surfaced in the open records request. It contains nearly 50 geography, sports, food and language translation questions, in which one of the answers was the “PR equal to a hillbilly.”
Here’s a sample of those questions:
- What is the name of the frog native only to PR? Coqui
- What is a “jibaro”? A small farmer; a PR equal of a hillbilly
- What is a “pava”? A straw hat worn by jibaros and the symbol of the “populares”
- What is “alcapurria”? A meat filled plaintain fritter
- What is “bacalaito”? A cod fish batter fritter
- What is “Pegao”? The crispy rice left on the bottom of the pot.
- What is “jugo de china”? Orange juice
“Oh, that is crazy,” said Stephanie Stanley, who was applying for her driver’s license in Cobb County on Wednesday night. “It don’t make no sense.”
“Why do they need to do this?” asked Cobb resident Wesley Henson. “They’re already Americans. I mean, they can do the same things I can do.”
The department’s director of governmental affairs and communications told Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr that the questionnaire was not approved by the DDS administration.
“The document was discovered during a search in response to an open records request and in efforts to comply with GA open records law, it was released,” Shevondah Leslie said in an e-mail. “However, the document was not sanctioned by DDS administration (and) because this is an open litigation we can not provide additional comments.”
Gerry Weber serves as senior counsel to the Southern Center of Human Rights. The group, alongside Latino Justice, filed the lawsuit this week.
“What we’re saying is that Puerto Rican American citizens who want to move to Georgia and want to transfer their driver’s licenses should be able to do that in the same way that Texans do it, or Ohioans should do it,” Weber said. “There should be the same rules for everyone who is an American citizen.”
It’s still unclear how many Puerto Ricans may have been impacted by the policy. Weber said it’s something they hope to learn through the lawsuit.
Because the driver’s license is key to voting, many worry about implications beyond inconvenience.
“That’s Jim Crow law that’s starting all over again making it very challenging for them,” Stanley said.
Puerto Rico’s governor calls on Kemp to intervene
By Wednesday morning, Puerto Rico’s governor expressed anger over the allegations and called on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to intervene.
“This is absurd,” Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares said in part of a statement. “Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and cannot be treated unequally in any U.S. jurisdiction. If true, I ask Georgia Governor Brian Kemp to address the disturbing irregularities immediately.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Candice Broce, Kemp’s communications director, released the following statement:
“Governor Kemp expects state employees to follow the law and treat every constituent with dignity and respect. Our team has spoken with DDS Commissioner Spencer Moore and asked him to conduct a full investigation into these claims. Given that this matter involves pending litigation, we will decline to further discuss any specifics involving this case.”
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