Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Juan Gonzalez Old Puerto Rico birth certificates to be scrapped due to identity theft scams, leaving many in limbo

Juan Gonzalez

Friday, March 12th 2010, 2:53 AM

All birth certificates previously issued by the government of  Puerto Rico will become invalid, starting July 1.
Getty
All birth certificates previously issued by the government of Puerto Rico will become invalid, starting July 1.

A new law in Puerto Rico aimed at combating identity theft is already sparking fears of an anti-Latino backlash against many U.S. residents born on the island.

Starting July 1, all birth certificates previously issued by the government of Puerto Rico will become invalid. After that, anyone needing proof that they were born on the island will have to apply for a new birth certificate.

But several states aren't even bothering to wait. California, Ohio and Nevada have announced in recent weeks that they have stopped accepting birth certificates from Puerto Rico as proof of identity for driver's licenses or other ID.

Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, anyone born there is automatically a citizen. Because of that, the island's birth certificates have been coveted for years by identity-theft rings.

The Puerto Rico legislature passed the new law in January after the Department of Homeland Security warned that 40% of some 8,000 fraudulent passport cases reviewed by the State Department had used birth documents from the island.

"We have a responsibility to protect the identity of our population," Luis Balzac, a spokesman for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said yesterday.

But some Latino leaders here are warning that the poorly publicized law will create unintended problems for an estimated 1 million Puerto Rico-born residents living in the 50 states - including 300,000 in New York.

"This is a major blunder," Cesar Perales, president of the national civil rights group Latino Justice/PRLDEF said. "Everyone will now begin questioning all documents from Puerto Rico."

Perales appealed in a letter to Puerto Rico's governor, Luis Fortuno, yesterday to postpone the law's implementation, citing "the very intense anti-Latino climate" in the country "due to the influx of Latino immigrants."

Puerto Rico-born residents of California, Perales noted, can't get a driver's license today using their birth certificate, and they can't get a new valid birth certificate from Puerto Rico until after July 1.

"We can assume that many other jurisdictions will follow [the example of California and Ohio] and will begin to question the validity of all documents issued in Puerto Rico," Perales wrote. "The resultant harm . . . may very well be massive."

The 4 million residents of Puerto Rico do not see it as that big deal. Many are accustomed to periodically applying for new copies of birth certificates, with some securing as many as 20 certificates over a lifetime.

In fact, one of the reasons identity theft exploded in Puerto Rico is that public schools have always required parents to supply an official copy of a child's birth certificate each time a student enrolled in a new school. The schools then kept copy on file.

Several criminal rings were uncovered in recent years that had managed to steal thousands of such school files. The new law prohibits schools from keeping official copies of birth certificates.

But for those living on the mainland, especially anyone needing to apply for a passport or a driver's license over the next few months, the transition of new birth certificates could be a nightmare. "No one knows how the island's government will process millions of new birth certificate applications this year," Perales said.

Officials say they will charge only $5 for an application that can be submitted by mail, and that they will waive that fee for anyone who is over 60 or a veteran. But the government will not accept any applications until after July 1, so there is bound to be an avalanche of paperwork during the summer.

Already, dozens of Web sites have sprung up to exploit the expected demand.

Those seeking reliable information should visit the Web site of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration at prfaa.com

jgonzalez@nydailynews.com

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