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Puerto Rican Birth Certificates Will Be Null And Void

At a New York cafe, 82-year-old Antonia Andujar says she likes her Puerto Rican birth certificate and has no intention of getting a new one.
Marianne McCune for NPR
At a New York cafe, 82-year-old Antonia Andujar says she likes her Puerto Rican birth certificate and has no intention of getting a new one.

On July 1, all Puerto Rican birth certificates will become invalid. U.S. officials say a big percentage of fraudulent applications for U.S. passports or social benefits use Puerto Rican birth certificates.

So the Puerto Rican government is requiring everyone born on the island to apply for new ones. Among many Puerto Ricans, there's confusion and resentment over the measure.

'Money Buys Everything'

Edwin Pastrana is a retired cop in New York with a big screen TV, a tank full of tropical fish and a cat he's trying to keep off the couch. Though he was born on the mainland, he's been handing out new birth certificate applications to all the Puerto Rican-born members of his family. He says the Puerto Rican government is right to get rid of the current ones.

"Somewhere along the way, someone's doing funny things with birth certificates," Pastrana says.

It's best to take care of the problem before it balloons, Pastrana says. But he says most everyone else he talks to is irritated, suspicious or confused.

In the apartment downstairs, Pastrana's mother-in-law and sister-in-law, Alicia and Juana Torres, review what they're supposed to do. Alicia Torres, 86, worries she needs to unearth her old birth certificate. Then she reads on the application that, no, she can just send a copy of a valid photo ID.

They'll both do it, they say. But this does not strike Juana Torres as something that will prevent fraud.

"Money buys everything," she says. "Anyone will do anything for money."

So this initiative won't keep all birth certificates off the black market, says Puerto Rico's Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock.

"What we're looking for with this law is to resolve maybe at least 90 percent of the problem, not necessarily deal with 100 percent of the problem," McClintock says.

A Different System In Puerto Rico

McClintock explains that in the 50 states, when parents are asked for their child's birth certificate as proof of age or identity, they make a copy. In Puerto Rico, people have been handing over the actual government-issued document. Some parents end up getting a dozen birth certificates to leave with different agencies.

What we're looking for with this law is to resolve maybe at least 90 percent of the problem, not necessarily deal with 100 percent of the problem.

So schools, for example, or even soccer coaches and ballet teachers, keep files of students' birth certificates, he says. And with so many of them out there, some certificates find their way into the wrong hands.

If a woman dies, and in going through her things, her family throws away a box of files including birth certificates, the family has exposed those certificates to misuse, McClintock says.

Puerto Rico's new law makes it illegal to file away other people's birth certificates.

Harder To Prove Identity

Cesar Perales of the civil rights group Latino Justice says his concern with the whole initiative is that suddenly all Puerto Rican birth certificates appear suspicious. He says stateside Puerto Ricans already have trouble convincing people that their documents are as good as any other American's.

"Just a couple of years ago, the state of New Hampshire decided that people with Puerto Rican passports would be treated like foreigners and had to go to a special office in order to be able to get a driver's license," Perales says.

With this new law, people applying for driver's licenses in other states have already reported having their birth certificates rejected, he says.

"A declaration by the very government of Puerto Rico that birth certificates issued by that government really ought to be suspect — that makes it that much more difficult for people in this country who spent a lot of time proving that they are native-born citizens," Perales says.

Some people are simply attached to their old birth certificates. Sipping a cup of sweet coffee in a local cafe, 82-year-old Antonia Andujar says there's no way she will apply for a new certificate.

"I keep my old one," Andujar says. "It's nice!"

She's also under the impression that she has to send back the old document to get the new one.

For this initiative to work, there's a lot of educating to do. Puerto Rico's government plans to launch a public information campaign in April.

Copyright 2010 WNYC

Marianne McCune
Marianne McCune is a reporter and producer for Embedded: Buffalo Extreme who has more than two decades of experience making award-winning audio stories. She has produced narrative podcast series for New York Magazine (Cover Story), helped start, produce and edit long-form narrative shows for NPR and public radio affiliates (Rough Translation; United States of Anxiety, Season Four), reported locally and internationally (NPR News, NPR's Planet Money and WNYC News) and produced groundbreaking narrative audio tours (SF MOMA, Detour). She is also the founder of Radio Rookies, a narrative youth radio series, that is still thriving at WNYC.