A boom in identity theft linked to Puerto Rican birth certificates has prompted the commonwealth to take a desperate measure: throw them all out.
The surprising step, effective July 1, has created confusion among many of the 240,000 New York City residents who were born there.
The policy has been widely decried for being poorly promoted, and it has some Puerto Ricans worried about losing their U.S. citizenship.
“Nobody knows about it,” said Luis Roberto Clemente, 50, a Lower East Side resident born in Lajas, Puerto Rico. “When politicos do something, it stays in the office. It doesn’t get to the people.”
Puerto Rican birth certificates are incredibly valuable because they can be the ticket to a U.S. passport. They’re responsible for about 40 percent of 8,000 identity fraud cases recently investigated by the U.S. State Department.
“It’s a problem that’s been growing and as the need in the black market for birth certificates with Hispanic-sounding names grew, the black market value … has gone into the $5,000 to $10,000 range,” said Kenneth McClintock Hernandez, the commonwealth’s secretary of state.
The U.S. also worries the illegal birth certificates could be used by terrorists.
News of the change has trickled into the U.S. after the Puerto Rican State Department news conference in December failed to garner national attention.
But Puerto Ricans here needn’t rush to apply for new documents unless there’s an emergency, the commonwealth government and local experts advised.
Those seeking replacement certificates, which will be more security-enhanced, must mail an application to Puerto Rico’s Registro Demográfico, and there is no deadline to request one.
Puerto Rican New Yorkers, too, are concerned about whether they have to reapply for government programs and whether they can travel to Puerto Rico, said Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy.
Residents are not in danger of losing their U.S. citizenship and likely won’t have to reapply for programs such as Medicaid, but the U.S. State Department is still deciding what to do about passports issued to those with Puerto Rican birth certificates.
“The Puerto Rican government really screwed this up,” Falcón said. “I don’t think this thing is theft-proof anyway. All you have to do is submit a photocopy of a photo ID, one you possibly got from a false birth certificate.”
Puerto Rico widely uses birth certificates as proof of identity. Puerto Ricans have an average of 20 copies made in their lifetimes, McClintock Hernandez said. One criminal ring was busted last March for breaking into schools and stealing thousands of birth certificates.
“It’s really more for passports,” said Adam Levin, of Identity Theft 911. “People want to gain access to U.S. passports, which of course raises a whole host of issues with what has happened in the past couple of years.”
Rep. José Serrano (D-Bronx) said he’ll wait to reapply for his own Puerto Rican birth certificate.
“What I’ve been trying to do is stop people from panicking,” Serrano said. “You’re living in New York, and you’re established already, no one is going to ask you for a birth certificate.”
But José “Passion” Jordan, 39, of the Lower East Side, is among those who need a new certificate immediately. He needs a New York driver’s license and has already sent a $5 money order to Puerto Rico to begin the process.
“I have my Social Security card, my welfare ID,” listed Jordan. “I’ve got everything but my birth certificate.”
Puerto Rico has asked that people not rush to get new birth certificates, but those with an immediate need can apply on or after July 1. Here’s how:
* Download and complete application form at prfaa.com
* Include photocopy of government-issued photo ID, $5 money order to Secretary of Treasury of Puerto Rico and self-addressed, stamped envelope
* Mail to Registro Demográfico, P.O. Box 11854, San Juan, PR 00910
* For more, visit prfaa.com or call (787) 767-9120