But when Caban Gonzalez was called back to the service center a few days later, on Nov. 3, 2017, he wasn’t given a new ID. He was arrested and taken to jail, accused of first-degree forgery and presenting fraudulent documents — both felony crimes. He spent three days behind bars, lost construction work and faced the possibility of imprisonment before ultimately being cleared last March.
Caban Gonzalez’s ordeal was the result of a Georgia Department of Driver Services practice of treating license seekers who moved from Puerto Rico differently than those who came from U.S. states and the District of Columbia, even though they are U.S. citizens.
Now, as part of a settlement in a federal discrimination lawsuit Caban Gonzalez filed in July, the state has agreed to start treating applicants from Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories the same as those from U.S. states. Previously, the state subjected some to automatic fraud checks, confiscating their documents to check their legitimacy, and in some cases, it required applicants to take a test proving their knowledge of the island.
“How do you celebrate San Juan Day?” was one of the questions. (The desired response: “Walk backwards from the beach to the ocean at midnight.”) Asked another, “What is the name of the frog native only to PR?” (Answer: Coqui.) Some of the questions were outdated, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, including one that listed the current governor as Pedro Rosselló, whose term ended in 2001.
While still denying that its policies and practices unlawfully discriminated against Puerto Ricans, the Department of Driver Services agreed in the settlement that it would prohibit the knowledge test and start permitting reciprocity for Puerto Ricans who become Georgia residents.
“We’re extremely grateful,” said Kira Romero-Craft, a lawyer for Caban Gonzalez and a managing attorney with the immigrants rights group LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “We’re grateful that the policy has changed. We’re grateful that they’ve taken the concerns of the community seriously and that they’re basically normalizing the experience of the folks that are coming over from the island.”
It’s not clear how many people were affected by the state’s previous approach. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found that in trying to combat the fraudulent use of Puerto Rican birth certificates, the state had “gone to unusual lengths,” flagging applicants who did not have licenses from a U.S. state for automatic fraud checks. Employees were directed to hold on to documents from such applicants and issue a license only if the applicant answered questions correctly.
Some likened the test, which asked about Puerto Rican culture, geography, politics and sports, according to a copy included in Caban Gonzalez’s lawsuit, to literacy tests once used to deny African Americans the right to vote.
“Puerto Rican Americans are not second-rate citizens and should be treated with the respect afforded every American,” said Gerry Weber, a senior attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, which joined LatinoJustice in filing the federal lawsuit. “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.”
Romero-Craft said she had never heard of Puerto Rican license-seekers being treated the way they had in Georgia. She said that although not everyone understands how the island “fits within the American landscape,” occasionally causing confusion in business settings, “I had never heard that it was a statewide policy.”
A Georgia Bureau of Investigation report released in December concluded that the test had been used to screen hundreds of applicants over multiple years. Besides Caban Gonzalez, now 22, at least one person was wrongly arrested and accused of using a fake birth certificate after receiving a low score on the knowledge test, according to the A Constitution. The charges were dropped when authorities determined his birth certificate was legitimate.
The Department of Driver Services fired one senior manager and demoted another as a result of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s findings. It also announced policy changes and said the questions were “originally provided prior to 2003 by the Diplomatic Security Service” and “should never be used” by its staff.
“The top priority at DDS is to provide efficient customer service while following all Georgia and Federal rules and requirements,” Department of Driver Services Commissioner Spencer R. Moore said in a statement after the settlement with Caban Gonzalez. “We welcome instances like this where opportunities for improvement can be made after additional assessment of existing law.”
Caban Gonzalez, who received $100,000 in the settlement, left Puerto Rico for Georgia to join his father and seek out a better life. But he struggled to support his fiancee and two young children without being able to drive to work.
Through his attorney, he told The Washington Post that he “never would have imagined” that he could be arrested for trying to obtain a license. “I am a U.S. citizen,” he said.
Now, he wants Puerto Ricans in Georgia to stop feeling afraid — and to go get their licenses. He got his on Monday, at long last, before driving himself home.