Lawsuit accuses Georgia of discriminating against Puerto Rican driver's license applicants

A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of a Puerto Rico-born man living in Georgia claims the state discriminates against driver's license applicants from the island territory by subjecting them to increased scrutiny compared to mainland-born applicants.

The suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, alleges the state Department of Driver Services (DDS) seizes identification documents from Puerto Ricans applying for state driver's licenses and often fails to return them and make a decision in a timely manner. The lawsuit was filed by LatinoJustice, a New York-based civil rights group, and the Southern Center for Human Rights, which are seeking class-action status.

Kenneth Caban, the plaintiff, applied for a driver's license in October 2017 after moving to Hinesville, Ga. It's been over 600 days without the return of his Puerto Rico driver's license, birth certificate and Social Security card, the lawsuit said. He was told he would be notified when he could pick them up.

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“Puerto Ricans who are trying to start a new life in Georgia deserve access to the same benefits that are afforded to other citizens of the United States," said Jorge Vasquez, associate counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF. "We believe that across Georgia there are many Puerto Ricans who face the same kind of intimidation that Kenneth experienced, and we cannot allow for this kind of overt discrimination to take place."

The department holds on to the applicants' documents to have them flagged for review, the lawsuit said. A DDS spokesperson did not immediately respond to a Fox News request for comment Wednesday.

A spokesperson for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said he's asked DDS Commissioner Spencer Moore to open an investigation into the claims of discriminatory treatment.

“Governor Kemp expects state employees to follow the law and treat every constituent with dignity and respect," spokeswoman Candice Broce told Fox News in an email. "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.”

Caban's lawsuit said he received a text message from a DDS employee to visit the department's Savannah office for an interview sometime after his documents were taken. When he arrived, he was arrested and later charged with forgery and providing false documents, the suit said.

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The charges are pending.

In addition to scrutinizing Puerto Rico-born applicants, the department makes them undergo extra driver's testing and requires them to answer questions from a Puerto Rico interview guide to prove their origins, according to the lawsuit.

Some of the questions pertained to the island's food and geography and naming the indigenous frog that inhabits Puerto Rico -- the coqui. Applicants were also required to translate certain words into Spanish, according to a copy of the interview guide LatinoJustice provided to Fox News.

In January 2018, Caban obtained a new birth certificate from Puerto Rico and was issued a state identification card in January, the lawsuit said. Without a driver's license, he has not been able to find a job in his construction field and has difficulty completing everyday tasks such as shopping, taking his daughter to medical appointments and going to church.

The department hasn't provided an explanation for why the documents he provided were not sufficient to grant him a driver's license.

In Hinesville, where Caban lives, tensions have flared between local residents and an influx of Puerto Ricans displaced from their island home by Hurricane Maria. Many newcomers said they've experienced poor service and discriminatory treatment from local government agencies, The Savannah Morning Times reported.

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Two Puerto Rican men applying for driver's licenses had their documents -- the same kind that Caban provided -- taken after staffers at the Liberty County Department of Motor Vehicles thought they were forgeries. They were forced to take an oral test to prove they were from the island.