April 20, 2010 -- This summer all Puerto Ricans will have the chance to be born again -- at least on paper.
The government of Puerto Rico is invalidating every birth certificate issued on the island before July 1, 2010, in an attempt to curb rampant fraud and identity theft that officials say has ruined lives, strained social service programs and compromised national security.
Each of Puerto Rico's 4 million residents and the estimated 1.2 million Puerto Rico-born Americans living in the 50 states will have to apply for new vital documents to legally prove that they exist and remain eligible for government benefits.
It's a radical solution to what many say has been a serious and growing crisis involving Puerto Rican birth certificates, which are used to apply for everything from U.S. passports to Medicaid.
The U.S. State Department and Homeland Security Department estimate that an astonishing 40 percent of all U.S. passport fraud cases in recent years involved Puerto Rican birth certificates, though exact numbers are unknown.
"There are so many [Puerto Rican birth certificates] floating around… a lot fall into the hands of unscrupulous individuals," said State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs spokeswoman Rosemary Macray. "We've uncovered many cases of people posing as Puerto Ricans" in applying for U.S. passports.
One law enforcement group that tracks so-called South American theft groups across the U.S. says fraudulent Puerto Rican credentials have become common cover for criminals, and police are being trained in how to identify them.
"I'd say 60 percent of them [suspects] will tell you they're from Puerto Rico," said Robert Taylor of the nonprofit South American Theft Group Intelligence Network.
"The birth certificates are so believable, the passports are so believable that even seasoned cops are fooled by it until they ask certain questions like, 'what's the national animal?'" he said. "It's a frog… but that stupid phrase has gotten more people caught with fake documents."
Officials say Puerto Rican birth certificates, many of which bear common Hispanic names, are sold widely on the black market, fetching thousands of dollars each. And they are not in short supply.
"In Puerto Rico, you left a copy everywhere you went," said Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., the most senior member of Congress who is of Puerto Rican descent.
Puerto Rican Certificates Widely Circulate, Fraud Prone
Puerto Ricans regularly distribute original, certified copies of their birth documents like they might be business cards or resumes, leaving them with church offices, athletic team coaches or summer camp counselors as part of membership applications.
"I don't know why we do it," said Luis Balzac, regional director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. But "anybody who grew up in Puerto Rico saw it happen."
The documents often remain unclaimed, lingering in filing cabinets and wastebaskets, easy targets for would-be thieves.
"My mom would request multiple copies of my birth certificate to give to the peewee football coach, summer camp, church groups…. [She] put out at least 10 copies of my certificate," Balzac said. "We don't know where those ended up… We would not receive them back."
Only 45,622 children were born in Puerto Rico in 2008, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. But more than 860,000 certified copies of birth certificates were issued by the Puerto Rican Office of Vital Statistics the same year, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
Under the new Puerto Rican law, all birth certificates circulating on the island and in crime rings will become worthless in July. The reissued birth certificates will contain enhanced security features to make them less fraud prone, officials say.
Puerto Ricans are also no longer permitted to provide original copies of their certificates to third parties.
"We're very pleased that the [Puerto Rican] government has taken on this initiative," said the State Department's Macray.
But ordinary Puerto Ricans, particularly those living in the mainland U.S., are worried the widespread invalidation of certificates could compromise legal recognition in their hometowns.
"My office is being inundated with questions about this new policy," said Serrano. "This could be a major problem for many of my constituents' applications for benefits, passports, and driver's licenses, among other things."
The Puerto Rican government is allowing natives residing in the mainland U.S. to apply for a new certificate online or by mail for $5 after July 1. They are not required to return to the island to obtain a new copy in person.
More information about applying for a new Puerto Rican birth certificate is available with the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration: http://www.prfaa.com/birthcertificates/