As Puerto Rican residents continue to flee their hurricane-ravaged homeland, more and more of them are making their way into South Georgia and the Carolina Low Country.
This influx of new residents, many of whom speak little or no English, has created tensions and misunderstandings for the service agency personnel tasked with helping them resettle here.
Cristina Talavera-Abreu works as a bilingual intake specialist for a Hinesville agency that provides tax preparation as well as financial and educational services to area residents. With strong family ties to Puerto Rico, Talavera also helps many local Latinos as a translator and interpreter.
When Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria began to resettle in Hinesville three month ago, Talavera heard disturbing allegations of poor service and prejudicial treatment at the hands of local government agencies. She started by helping three or four families cut through the red tape, but by Christmas, that number had swollen to nearly 20 families needing her assistance.
“The worst case was in October when two young Puerto Rican men applied for their Georgia drivers license,” she said. “They had all the proper documents– original birth certificates, social security cards, and Puerto Rican drivers licenses– but the clerks at the Liberty County Department of Motor Vehicles thought they were forgeries. They seized the documents and said they would check their validity. So now they had lost all their original IDs. What were they supposed to do?”
Several days later, the men received a call from an investigator with the Georgia State Department of Driver Services (DDS) who said they had to pass an oral test to prove they were really from Puerto Rico.
“He asked them ridiculous questions,” Talavera said. “Things like- 'Name the official frog of Puerto Rico' and 'Who is Ruth Fernandez?' I had to look that one up. She was an old singer, born nearly 100 years ago!”
Because the men could not answer the question, they were instructed to report to the DDS office in Savannah.
“When they arrived, the DDS investigator called them liars, slammed them to the floor, and handcuffed them, saying they were being charged with two counts of felony forgery, a crime that carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence,” Talavera said. “He took them back to Hinesville where they spent three days in jail before the father of one of the men paid over a thousand dollars to bail them out.”
Talavera said the refugee families also faced unnecessary delays in getting emergency food stamps and housing assistance.
“According to state and federal law, agencies are required to place refugees on priority status for these services but we had people faced with living on the streets because of all the delays,” Talavera said.
Late last month, State Representative Al Williams, (D- Midway) agreed to convene a meeting between outraged members of the Hinesville Latino community and local public officials.
Attendees included Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sykes, Hinesville City manager Kenneth Howard, as well as representatives from the housing authority, county commissioner's office, DFCS, and most prominently, Pierre Miles, deputy director of field operations for the Georgia Department of Driver Services.
“We had around 100 citizens in attendance,” Williams said. “People were really fired up. It was one of the better-attended town hall meetings we've held.”
Born and raised in Liberty County, Rep. Williams, (D- Midway) is completing his 7th consecutive term serving in the Georgia statehouse. Known for his integrity and candor, Williams was the perfect choice to act as mediator for the event.
“This was an outrage and it was very similar to what happened when people of color were displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” Williams said. “These arrests should never have happened and are a good example of why the state of Georgia needs to review all of its screening policies. Unfortunately, racial profiling is a persistent problem in certain areas.”
Williams said many local government workers apparently don't understand that Puerto Rican citizens are also U.S. citizens who enjoy the same rights and benefits as everyone on the mainland.
“Local residents have been very unhappy with the attitudes of certain agency staffers for sometime now and it's not just Puerto Ricans who are victimized”, Williams said. “We had a good productive meeting but this discussion is not ended. It is just beginning.”
According to Talavera, in spite of being exonerated, the two men who were arrested had still not received their Georgia driver's licenses by Christmas.
“Another family got so fed up waiting for the Hinesville DDS office to come through, they drove to Florida,” she said. “No problem with their documents there. They got their Florida drivers license, turned around, came back to Hinesville and the Hinesville office accepted it as proof of identity and issued them their Georgia license. You tell me this office is not seriously messed up!”