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Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) during a hearing of Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government of the House Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill May 19, 2009 in Washington, DC.
Native Puerto Ricans living outside the island territory are reacting with surprise and confusion after learning their birth certificates will become no good this summer.
A law enacted by Puerto Rico in December mainly to combat identity theft invalidates as of July 1 all previously issued Puerto Rican birth certificates. That means more than a third of the 4.1 million people of Puerto Rican descent living in the 50 states must arrange to get new certificates.
The change catches many unaware.
Julissa Flores, 33, of Orlando, Fla., said she knew nothing about Puerto Rico's law.
"I was planning a trip and now I don't know," she said. "Do I need to go get a passport? If my birth certificate is invalid, am I stuck here?"
People born in Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, are U.S. citizens at birth. Anyone using a stolen Puerto Rico birth certificate could enter and move about the U.S. more easily, which could also pose security problems.
Puerto Rico's legislature passed the law after raids last March broke up a criminal ring that had stolen thousands of birth certificates and other identifying documents from several different schools in Puerto Rico.
Puerto Ricans on average get about 20 copies of their birth certificates over their lifetimes, said Kenneth McClintock Hernandez, the commonwealth's secretary of state.
This is because they are regularly asked to produce them for such events as enrolling children in school or joining sports leagues. Schools and other institutions have typically kept copies, a practice prohibited under the new law since January, McClintock said.
As much as 40 percent of the identity fraud in the U.S. involves birth certificates from Puerto Rico, McClintock said he was told by the 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 of Puerto Rican birth certificates has gone into the $5,000 to $10,000 range," McClintock said.
Thus far, there seems to be little effort by the U.S. or Puerto Rican governments to educate the 1.5 million people born in Puerto Rico and living on the mainland about the new law.
Rep. Jose Serrano, D-Bronx, has been getting a steady stream of calls about the law at his district office. Serrano — who must replace his birth certificate, too — said he is trying to provide answers without triggering a panic.
"No one has thought about what effect this could have, if any, on those of us born in Puerto Rico who now reside in the 50 states," Serrano said.
McClintock said a news conference held in Puerto Rico in December did not draw national media attention he hoped would spread the word. He noted there is no deadline for getting a new birth certificate. After July 1, the government will issue a temporary, 15-day certificate for those who need a birth certificate in an emergency.
The State and Homeland Security departments are deciding what to do for passport applicants with invalid birth certificates, State Department spokeswoman Adriana Gallegos said.
For now, Puerto Ricans are learning about the law from each other, news reports and community groups. The information isn't always correct.
Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, said he found out about the new law through an e-mail from a Latino public policy group.
"You have to be plugged into networks to learn about it," said Vargas-Ramos, whose father and sisters were born on the island.
Conchita Vallecillo, 66, of Fairfax, Va., read about the new law in a Puerto Rico newspaper. She thought her age exempted her. "I didn't think we would be affected, so it's one of those things that you don't pay attention to," said Vallecillo, whose husband and four children also were born in Puerto Rico.
There is no exemption for age. The law only waives the $5 fee for a new birth certificate for people over 60 and for veterans.
Emilio Perez, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, traveled to Puerto Rico to gather his own information on the new law. He planned to post the information on the chamber's Web site to help get information out.
About 47 percent of people of Puerto Rican descent in Florida, or 377,000 people, and 29 percent, or 318,000, in New York — states with the largest Puerto Rican populations — were born on the island.
For more information, go to the Puerto Rican government's website set up for the change over: prfaa.com/birthcertificates.