Puerto Rico Test Used to Screen Hundreds of License Applicants

December 30, 2019by David Wickert
A faulty test was used to screen hundreds of Puerto Ricans who applied for Georgia driver's licenses and identification cards over many years, a new report shows. (Jinaritt Thongruay/Dreamstime/TNS)

ATLANTA — A faulty test was used to screen hundreds of Puerto Ricans who applied for Georgia driver’s licenses and identification cards over many years, a new Georgia Bureau of Investigation report shows.

Department of Driver Services investigators used the document to test applicants’ knowledge of Puerto Rico’s government, geography and culture to determine whether they were really island residents. It was part of an effort to crack down on the use of fake Puerto Rican birth certificates to obtain licenses.

But the “Puerto Rican interview guide” was outdated, and some of the “correct” answers provided were wrong. One applicant was arrested and charged with using a fake birth certificate after performing poorly on the test. The charges against him were later dropped after investigators determined his Puerto Rican birth certificate was authentic, documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show.

The GBI report offers the fullest picture to date of the DDS’ use of the interview guide to screen applicants. Civil rights advocates say the DDS illegally singled out Puerto Ricans who moved to Georgia by making them take a test that was not administered to other U.S. citizens who applied for driver’s licenses and I.D. cards. The test is a key focus of a federal lawsuit filed last summer.

“No one stepped back and said, ‘we really have to see how this is impacting the individuals who are being subjected to this,’” said attorney Kira Romero-Craft, who reviewed the GBI report, which was released earlier this month.

The Department of Driver Services no longer uses the test, though it’s unclear when it stopped. Documents show it was used as recently as two years ago.

Top agency officials have denied knowing about it. In a written statement, Commissioner Spencer Moore said the test “should never be used by DDS staff, under any circumstances, and it is not an authorized DDS document.”

The interview guide included dozens of questions designed to test applicants’ knowledge of Puerto Rico. Among them: “What is the name of the frog native only to PR?” “What is El Morro?” and “Who/what owns most of Vieques?” (The respective answers, according to the guide: “Coqui,” “A Spanish fort built in the 1600’s, in Old San Juan” and “U.S. Navy”).

But a Puerto Rico expert told the AJC last summer some of the answers are incorrect. One example: The correct answer to the question “Who is the current governor of Puerto Rico?” is listed as Pedro Rossello, who left office in 2001.

An AJC investigation found the interview guide originated the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service, the law enforcement arm of the State Department. An introduction to the guide says it was used “to assess the validity of claims to U.S. citizenship by birth in Puerto Rico.”

The use of fake Puerto Rican birth certificates to obtain driver’s licenses and other benefits has been a serious problem for years. But the newspaper found Georgia went to unusual lengths to combat such fraud — efforts that civil rights advocates say are discriminatory.

The DDS says the interview guide was provided to investigators sometime before 2003. But many details — including who provided it and when investigators began using it — remain uncertain.

The GBI interviewed 21 current and former DDS employees, including many who investigated Puerto Ricans applying for driver’s licenses and I.D. cards. Most said they’d been given the test by a supervisor or co-worker when they first started working at the agency.

One investigator told the GBI he’d used the interview guide “a couple of hundred” times. Others said they’d used it dozens of times, while a few said they hadn’t seen or used the test or had seldom used it.

Investigators told the GBI they used random questions from the test or only certain portions of it when conducting interviews.

One investigator told the GBI he found the test “very helpful.” He said it “assisted him in making a number of arrests for people that were purporting to be from Puerto Rico but actually they were from another country.”

But the GBI report cites one case in which “failing” the test contributed to the arrest of an applicant who was later cleared of wrongdoing.

In 2017, the man applied for a Georgia I.D. card at the DDS Hinesville office. When interviewed by investigators, he answered 11 of 18 test questions incorrectly. The investigator who interviewed him sent his Puerto Rican birth certificate and other documents to a supervisor for examination. Both investigators believed the documents were fake. DDS officials later arrested and charged the applicant with forgery.

But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security later determined the applicant’s birth certificate and Social Security card were authentic. His Puerto Rican I.D. card could not be authenticated — but only because the department lacked a genuine I.D. card with which to compare it.

DDS later issued the applicant a Georgia I.D. card and — after 19 months — dropped the charges against him. The applicant could not be reached for comment.

His one-time roommate was Kenneth Caban Gonzalez, who was also arrested and charged with forgery and making false statements after applying for a driver’s license. DDS later dropped the charges after Homeland Security authenticated his documents.

It was Caban Gonzalez who filed the federal lawsuit last summer. Though he did not take the test, the lawsuit cites the department’s use of the it as part of a pattern of alleged discrimination.

“There is no reason to subject a U.S. citizen to another layer of scrutiny that they don’t subject other U.S. citizens to,” said Romero-Craft, his attorney.

When the GBI provided its findings earlier this month, DDS fired one manager and demoted another. DDS said the managers did not follow appropriate protocols during the investigation of Caban Gonzalez.

A DDS spokeswoman said the department is not aware of other incidents in which the failure to answer questions on the Puerto Rico interview guide contributed to the improper denial of a driver’s license or I.D. card.

When asked for more details about how long the interview guide was used, she said by email: “We are not aware, as this document was not approved by Commissioner Moore or his leadership team. Team members were directed not to use this doc upon being made aware of its existence.

“We are unable to comment further,” the spokeswoman said.

———

©2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

Visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) at www.ajc.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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