Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican Day Parade  in New York City.

Angel Roldan has plenty of Puerto Rican pride, even though he moved away from the island at age 2. His street vendor’s stall on E. 116th Street, the heart of the Puerto Rican neighborhood of East Harlem, was filled with red, white and blue merchandise for the city’s annual Puerto Rican Day parade Sunday, the day-long party honoring the heritage of nearly 800,000 New York residents.


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.

Puerto Ricans on the mainland can apply for a new birth certificate by mail or online. There is nothing in the process to prevent replacement of illegally obtained birth certificates, if the holder has other required documentation such as a driver’s license, McClintock says.

The plan has been troublesome even though it has yet to be implemented. After the new law was announced in January, at least two state motor vehicle departments — Nevada and Ohio — temporarily stopped accepting Puerto Rican birth certificates, although they were still valid, for driver’s license applications. Iowa’s motor vehicle bureau added a level of investigation to each license application involving a Puerto Rican birth certificate but stopped after complaints.

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.”

Problems in the process

In East Harlem, Jose Velez-Torres, born 78 years ago in Mayaguez, sent in his paperwork for a new birth certificate in April, as soon as he heard about the policy. He was one of many people to do so at the Corsi Senior Center, where he lunches daily.

“Almost everybody here has come to me to fill out their form,” social worker Priscilla Morgan says.

The birth certificate Velez-Torres received last week is for Jose Velez-Torres, age 33, born in Ponce. Not only that, but “they changed the name of my father and my mother,” Velez-Torres says. The vital records office did return his $5 fee, which is waived for those over 60 and for veterans. He says he will try again.

Roldan, the T-shirt vendor, says his reaction to the birth certificate law is mixed.

“Naturally, first thing, I was a little upset,” he says, because of “the headache of going through the process,” as well as being asked to pay $5 for a document he already possessed.

His opinion changed when he learned of would-be immigrants “using our paperwork for themselves,” he says. So he asked his father to get the new certificate when his dad travels to Puerto Rico next month. “Laws are laws,” Roldan says. “The way we’re living today … we’ve got to close the loose (ends).”

Via USA Today