It was not too long ago that driver’s license applicants who wanted to exchange a Puerto Rican license for a Georgia license had to take a special test, a requirement not imposed on other U.S. citizens.
In 2020, in response to litigation, Georgia closed that chapter in its history.
Under the terms of a settlement agreement, the Georgia Department of Driver Services dropped this requirement in early 2020 and no longer requires Puerto Rican applicants to complete a driving or written test to transfer a valid license if they are at least 18 and meet Georgia residency and proof of identity requirements. The agency has also stopped using a “Puerto Rico Interview Guide” to ask applicants questions meant to prove that they are indeed Puerto Rican.
As reported last year in the Puerto Rico Report, Athens Georgia made headlines by using special questions for people from Puerto Rico who applied for drivers licenses. The questions included “Where is Caguas beach?” — a trick question since there is no beach in Caguas — and a total of 43 questions ranging from trivia to specialized knowledge about agriculture and history.
A few more examples:
- “How do you celebrate San Juan Day?” Walk backward from the beach into the ocean at midnight.
- “Police in PR wear two basic uniforms. What are they?” Blue and green.
- “What its Pegao?” The crispy rice left in the bottom of the pot.
These questions were part of a “DDS Puerto Rican Interview Guide” that the Georgia Department of Drivers Services made available for its officers to use when issuing licenses to people born in Puerto Rico.
The department explained that they used the 43 extra questions to make sure that people using birth certificates from Puerto Rico as identification were in fact from Puerto Rico. They claimed that immigrants bought Puerto Rico birth certificates in order to get Georgia drivers licenses illegally. Since people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens by birth, a Spanish speaker from another country could pretend to have been born in Puerto Rico.
Birth certificate black market
It was true in the 20th century that there was a black market trade in Puerto Rico birth certificates. The State Department reported that 40% of fake passports obtained with a real birth certificate involved Puerto Rican birth certificates. At that time, birth certificates from Puerto Rico were easier to obtain than those from many states. It was common for organizations like schools to request copies and to keep them on file, where they could be stolen.
The Department of Health and Human Services blamed misuse of birth certificates for the fraud problems, pointing out that birth certificates are not identification, but just a record of the fact that a birth took place.
Puerto Rico passed a law in 2010 invalidating their birth certificates issued up to that point and requiring Puerto Ricans to apply for new birth certificates. They tightened up their requirements for requesting copies and discouraged the custom of requiring the documents for ordinary transactions.
Facing this problem, some law enforcement officials began asking “What’s the official animal of Puerto Rico?” as a casual test of whether the bearer of a Puerto Rican birth certificate was in fact born in Puerto Rico.
The case of Georgia
In Georgia in 2019, birth certificates from Puerto Rico would have been the new, more secure versions. Yet the Athens office used the “Puerto Rican Interview Guide” to accuse Kenneth Cabán of having a fraudulent birth certificate. They not only refused to issue a Georgia Drivers License, but also confiscated his identity documents, including his Social Security card, and kept them for more than 600 days.
Cabán was unable to drive legally during that time, and was unable to get a job without proper identification. He sued the state of Georgia. In February, 2020, the state settled the lawsuit. They stopped using the “Puerto Rican Interview Guide” and gave up asking Puerto Ricans for extra proof of identity beyond what they asked any U.S. citizen.
While they didn’t admit to any wrongdoing, the state did provide training to their staff. The court case likened the “Puerto Rican Interview Guide” to race-based voter suppression in the state.