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Groups Offer Help With Puerto Rico Birth Certificate Law

Mark Spencer

June 18, 2010

Although birth certificates issued by Puerto Rico will become invalid July 1, a representative of the island's government said that people don't need to rush to get new ones unless they have an immediate need.

"I haven't used mine in 15 years," said Luis Balzac, director of the New York regional office of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which represents the island's government on the mainland.

Puerto Rican officials are trying to avoid an avalanche of birth certificate applications that could delay issuing new ones in a process that has caused confusion, particularly among those born on the island but living on the mainland.

News about the situation initially spread slowly and misconceptions in the Puerto Rican community were widespread. The state Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission is now trying to get the word out. At a news conference earlier this week at the state Legislative Office Building, Acting Director Werner Oyanadel said the commission is working with other groups on a campaign that will include print, radio and television ads, mailings and outreach at community events.

The law requiring the new birth certificates, adopted by the commonwealth Dec. 22, was set in motion earlier last year when the U.S. departments of State and Homeland Security told Puerto Rico officials that stolen birth certificates were being used to obtain documents such as passports fraudulently or for identity theft.

A U.S. Department of State study found that about 40 percent of fraudulent passports were obtained using birth certificates from Puerto Rico.

In a custom unique to the island, Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, were required to provide 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.

As a result, there are as many as 20 million unsecured birth certificates on the island, which attracted criminals who stole them to sell for up to $10,000 each on the black market.

Under the new system, Puerto Rico birth certificates will have additional security features and public and private organizations will not be allowed to keep them. Balzac said the Puerto Rico legislature is currently considering extending the validity of current birth certificates for 90 days, but has yet to approve the law.

Of the more than 200,000 people in Connecticut who identify themselves as Puerto Rican, about 82,300 were born on the island, according to the 2008 American Community Survey. Oyanadel said the information campaign will target cities with the highest concentrations of Puerto Ricans: Hartford, New Britain, Waterbury, Meriden, Wallingford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Danbury, New London and Windham.

Although some Puerto Ricans have expressed resentment about having to get new birth certificates, the campaign emphasizes the benefit to them, using the theme, "If you were born in Puerto Rico, you need to protect your identity."

But questions persist about potential problems. Some Puerto Ricans went back to the island to get a new document as soon as they heard about the problem, only to learn new certificates would not be issued until July 1.

Anna Alfaro of Windsor said she was concerned about Puerto Ricans who try to get a new driver's license after July 1.

"This could be a big problem for a lot of people," she said.

Ernie Bertothy, a spokesman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles, said old birth certificates cannot be accepted as identification after July 1. He said DMV workers will direct people to information on how to get a new birth certificate, but "we will uphold the law."

Milly Arciniegas, president of the Hartford Parent Organization Council, said public school systems will need to develop a plan by the new school year to deal with children who may be required to show a birth certificate to enroll, but who do not have a new one.

Oyanadel said help will be available from the commission, from ASPIRA of Connecticut, the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association and some agents with State Farm, which contributed money for the publicity campaign along with the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

Online applications for new birth certificates are available at http://www.pr.gov, although no certificates will be issued until after July 1. Information in English and Spanish about the new law is available at http://www.prfaa.com/birthcertificates/ or by calling 212-252-7300.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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