Puerto Rico Scraps Birth Records

Martha T. Moore, USA Today, June 14, 2010

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What he doesn’t have is a birth certificate that’s good beyond this month. Born 46 years ago in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico–a U.S. territory–Roldan is one of about 5.5 million island natives whose identity document will be invalidated July 1.

In an effort to end what it describes as a brisk black market in Puerto Rican birth certificates, which confer U.S. citizenship, the Puerto Rican government decided in December to invalidate all existing birth certificates. Those born on the island, including about 1.35 million who live on the mainland, must apply for a new birth certificate.

The black market is not fueled by counterfeiting but by multiple official copies of individual certificates. In Puerto Rico, it is customary to hand over an official birth certificate to register for school or sports leagues.

“We have filed away in unsecure locations tens of millions of live valid birth certificates,” says Kenneth McClintock, Puerto Rico’s secretary of State, who says he used to buy five birth certificates at a time for his children from the Vital Statistics Record Office. Although drastic, he says, the measure to invalidate millions of documents was necessary. “We can take care of the public school records, although it would be difficult. But what about your volleyball coach who died last week and left in her garage a cardboard box with 237 records of her past team members?”

Stolen documents

The new law forbids institutions such as schools from keeping official copies of a birth certificate.

In 2008, federal agents confiscated 14,000 stolen birth certificates in an investigation that resulted in five convictions, says Ivan Ortiz, a spokesman for the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency in Puerto Rico. In a previous case, birth certificates were bought from drug addicts for $25 and then sent to the U.S. mainland to be sold for $5,000 each. “I don’t know if the new law is going to shut this down, but it will definitely make it more difficult to obtain an original of this document,” Ortiz says.

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In the wake of Arizona’s anti-illegal-immigration law, some Puerto Ricans aren’t happy to have any change in their identity papers. “Every Spanish-speaking person, everybody who looks Latin is suddenly suspect,” says Cesar Perales of the advocacy group LatinoJustice PRLDEF (Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.) “So to decide that this is the time to change Puerto Rican birth certificates is not a good idea at the very least.”

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