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Puerto Rican birth certificates must be reissued by October 30

on October 1, 2010

This summer Sonia Aguilera received a phone call from her father with some unexpected news: her birth certificate would soon be worthless.

The 43-year-old Richmond resident is one of the more than five million Americans born on the island of Puerto Rico—1.4 million of them on the US mainland, the rest still living in Puerto Rico—who will have to reapply for their own birth certificates. After October 30, their old documents, the papers they have guarded that attest to their birth in the US territory of Puerto Rico, will be invalid.

That’s because last December, legislators in Puerto Rico passed a law voiding all birth certificates issued on the island before July 2010 and requiring the island’s Vital Statistics Office to begin issuing new, more secure certified copies of the document.

“I was like ‘wait a moment,’ I didn’t know how to respond,” said Aguilera, who left her childhood home a few miles outside Puerto Rico’s capital for San Francisco when she was a teenager. “My father called me and told me that my birth certificate was no longer good.”

Surprise and confusion is the reaction many Americans born in Puerto Rico are having to the invalidation deadline. Many of them commonly use their birth certificates for a variety of everyday uses, such as enrolling in schools or joining churches, sports teams and other groups. In Aguilera’s case, she used her birth certificate to obtain a real estate agent’s license. Prior to that she used it to get a job as a baggage checker at San Francisco International Airport. Her real estate agent’s license expired, and she is unable to afford the renewal fees. Aguilera is currently unemployed.

The Puerto Rican legislature passed the law after numerous raids by federal authorities last March broke up a criminal ring that had stolen thousands of birth certificates and other identifying documents from several schools in Puerto Rico. The US State Department and the Department of Homeland Security informed Puerto Rican officials that stolen documents were being used for theft, or to fraudulently obtain documents such as passports.

Authorities say the documents can fetch up to $10,000 on the black market when they are peddled to undocumented immigrants who assume false identities to be able to work and obtain driver licenses in the US. The common Hispanic names of most individuals born in Puerto Rico have made the birth certificates highly desirable.

The move is something Puerto Rican officials have been slow to publicize, especially on the mainland. “There’s been no publicity about this — no one knows what’s happening,” said Melba Maldonado, executive director of La Raza Community Resource Center in San Francisco. “I keep some applications in my desk, just in case someone walks in needing help.”

Officials extended the original deadline of September 30 because of widespread confusion about the birth certificate nullifications.

Several state and federal agencies, including the California Department of Motor Vehicles, have released announcements warning that Puerto Rico-born persons seeking government-issued documents that require a birth certificate will not be able to use the old Puerto Rican birth certificate after the October 30 deadline.

Birth certificates are used, for example, to establish residency status. In California, anyone applying for a driver’s license for the first time needs to present a birth certificate and a social security number. (Those renewing licenses are not affected.) “The certificates will no longer be accepted because the Puerto Rican government has stated that they will no longer be valid,” said DMV Spokesperson Armando Botello, referring to birth certificates issued before July 1.“The action was taken by Puerto Rican government to combat identity theft.”

The Department of Homeland Security stated last year that 40 percent of some 8,000 fraudulent passport cases reviewed by the State Department had involved birth documents from the island.

Sonia Aguilera’s father, retired MUNI bus driver Luis Padilla, said he called his daughter to warn her after he learned of the invalidation from a television broadcast on a Spanish-language newscast. “I was worried, ” said Padilla, 69, who has been living in Richmond for the last 22 years, after having decided to move to the Bay Area to live with his brother. He renewed his own birth certificate this summer. “I didn’t know what affect that would have on my daughters,” he said. “I told her what happened, and that she needed to get moving.”

The confusion and lack of publicity has also caught federal agencies by surprise. A call to the local office of the US Postal Service, the agency responsible for processing passport applications, indicated that officials there, too, were unaware of the incoming deadline.

“That’s something that hasn’t trickled down to us,” said Postal Service spokesperson Gus Ruiz. “We follow the State Department guidelines and we ask for a couple of forms of identification and one of them is a birth certificate.”

He added, “We have not received any information from Washington DC that there is any change coming regarding people born on the island.”

To avoid a deluge of applications, which Puerto Rican officials say they are prepared to handle, they are urging people to apply with the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration only if they have an immediate need.

“No citizen who truly needs a certificate for a transaction in the foreseeable future will be left without a valid certificate as a result of the measures taken by the government of Puerto Rico, in coordination with the Federal government, to combat the massive fraud that was causing thousands of American citizens born in Puerto Rico to be the victims of ID theft,” said Kenneth McClintock-Hernandez, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State in a press release.

To obtain a new birth certificate, people are asked to mail an application for renewal to Puerto Rico’s Vital Records Office. For more information, officials are instructing people to contact the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Commission

“This [certificate] proves who I am,” said Aguilera. “I’m getting mine renewed.”

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