Puerto Rico's Decision To Reissue Birth Certificates Spurs Anger, Confusion
By Mark Spencer
April 14, 2010
The government of Puerto Rico will invalidate all current birth certificates as of June 30 in an effort to fight fraud, forcing more than 5 million people to get new ones in what could become a bureaucratic nightmare.The measure affects all Puerto Ricans born in the commonwealth, but many of the estimated 1.35 million islanders living on the mainland have no idea about the looming deadline.
Those who have heard about it, often by word of mouth, are confused about the process or angry about being singled out for a problem not of their own doing. Some contend that the drastic measure is unnecessary.
"I think it's something to be very, very upset about," said Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, a member of Connecticut's Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission and publisher of La Voz Hispana, a Spanish language weekly newspaper.
Werner Oyanadel, acting executive director of the commission, said he first heard about the situation in early March when he started getting calls from news reporters. He said he has begun organizing a way to educate local Puerto Ricans about the new law, even though no state money is available for a publicity campaign.
Without a birth certificate — the foundation of a person's legal identity — there could be problems getting a driver's license for the first time, obtaining a marriage license or qualifying for certain jobs or government benefits. Some isolated problems have already surfaced.
LatinoJustice, an advocacy group based in Washington, is particularly concerned about the consequences for Puerto Ricans in two cities — Hartford and Tampa, Fla. — because of the high percentage of island-born residents who live there.
Other Connecticut cities with significant Puerto Rican populations include New Haven, New Britain, Bridgeport, Waterbury and Willimantic.
The law authorizing the plan, approved by the commonwealth's legislature and signed by its governor Dec. 22, was set in motion earlier last year when the U.S. departments of State and Homeland Security told Puerto Rico officials that pilfered birth certificates were being used to fraudulently obtain documents such as passports or for identity theft, said Kenneth D. McClintock, Puerto Rico's secretary of state.
A U.S. Department of State study found that about 40 percent of fraudulent passports were obtained using birth certificates from Puerto Rico.
The genesis of the situation lies in a custom that appears to be unique to the island.
Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, must submit original birth certificates for an array of activities, from enrolling in school to joining Little League. The organizations kept the documents, but few stored them securely.
Because the practice is to issue multiple original birth certificates — not copies — some people end up with 10, maybe 20, throughout the course of their lives.
McClintock said there are up to 20 million unsecured birth certificates on the island, which in turn attracted criminals who stole them to sell for up to $10,000 each on the black market. The fact that most of the certificates were for people with Latino surnames was ideal for human traffickers who smuggle migrants into the country.
Schools were a favorite target.
"They don't steal computers, they steal school records — and it's not to change your grade," McClintock said.
The new law forbids organizations from asking for original birth certificates. Copies can be requested, but even those can't be kept.
The new birth certificates will not be available until July 1. Even birth certificates issued a day before the deadline will become invalid.
Island-born Puerto Ricans, or others born there, such as the children of military personnel, can apply for a new one by certified mail or at the Demographic Registry in San Juan, said Luis Balzac, director of the regional office in New York of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which represents the island's government on the mainland. Balzac said the government is spreading the word by sending letters to mainland officials, contacting organizations and encouraging media coverage.
"Once we have the opportunity to share the information, the overwhelming majority are in favor of it," Balzac said.
But many Puerto Rican organizations are criticizing the island's government for poor communication about the plan.
The recession has taken a severe toll on Puerto Rico. Unemployment is hovering at about 15 percent and 17,000 commonwealth employees — about 10 percent of the workforce — have been laid off to reduce a $3.2 billion budget deficit. McClintock said there is no money to spend on a publicity campaign about birth certificates.
Cesar A. Perales, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice, has asked Puerto Rico Gov. Luis G. Fortuño to extend the deadline for getting new certificates by at least six months and launch an extensive publicity campaign. He said the process needs to be changed to make a smooth transition for people from an old to a new birth certificate without a gap in which they have no valid document.
"The timing of it is strange," Perales said. "It's almost calculated to create problems."
For instance, California and Ohio have jumped the gun and already stopped accepting Puerto Rican birth certificates, he said. Islanders could also be stigmatized in an era of heightened concerns about both terrorism and immigration.
"Here on the mainland no one will remember the date that Puerto Rico purportedly improved its birth certificates," he wrote Fortuño. "They will only remember that Puerto Rico birth certificates are not to be accepted as valid."
Luis Rodriguez, whose family has owned the Comerio restaurant on Park Street in Hartford for 35 years, was born on the mainland, but his father and many other relatives were born in Puerto Rico. He was working at a double-time pace one day last week, trying to keep up with customers who were lined up out the door waiting for pinchos, alcapuria and other island favorites. He said his customers have started talking about what they should do about their birth certificates.
"I think they're more confused about it than anything else," Rodriguez said. "They don't know where to go or what to do."
Rodriguez-Reyes of the state's Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission said she was offended that Puerto Rico was being singled out for a problem that she believes is more widespread.
"I'm sure this has happened with the birth certificates of a lot of non-Spanish speakers," she said.
McClintock acknowledged that the new system will not entirely prevent the problem.
For instance, individuals who have obtained driver's licenses and other documents using stolen birth certificates may apply for a new one and go undetected, at least initially, he said.
Oyanadel said he is considering raising private money to pay for a public information campaign. Last week, he met with Mary Anne O'Neill, Gov. M. Jodi Rell's chief legal counsel, to develop a coordinated state response.
O'Neill said Friday that she has discussed the situation with Rell and that they will meet with other state agencies, including the departments of Motor Vehicles and Social Services, so that Puerto Ricans who may temporarily be without a birth certificate can still get services.
Puerto Rican officials, meanwhile, say they will be ready for a wave of applications for birth certificates, despite the recent government layoffs.
To avoid a logjam, Balzac encouraged people not to apply for a new certificate in July unless they have an immediate need for one.
"If you can't remember the last time you used your birth certificate, you probably don't have to run out and get one right away," he said.
Lydia Rodriguez, 65, who was playing bingo with friends at the Hispanic Senior Center on Wadsworth Street this week, said she wasn't sure if she would bother.
"I don't like it," she said. "You live all your life with a birth certificate and now they're going to change it? I don't know."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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