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How Safe Are Puerto Rican Birth Certificates?

Miami Herald
In this photograph from 2010, Alfredo Pagan shows his Puerto Rican birth certificate.

More than 50 people were recently arrested in a major international sting operation that led to the dismantling of an identity theft network centered in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Two of the most recent defendants were Francisco Matos-Beltre and Isaias Beltre-Matos, both originating from the Dominican Republic. The network was selling Puerto Rican birth certificates in more than a dozen U.S. states. Alfonso Chardy of El Nuevo Herald tells how the network operated and whether Puerto Ricans should be concerned about their identity.

Alfonso: They were selling Puerto Rican birth certificates and other Puerto Rican documents to undocumented immigrants because people want the Puerto Rican birth certificates so they could apply for U.S. passports. 

Luis: I'm Puerto Rican, born on the island, and a number of years ago I was sent a letter saying you must get a new birth certificate issued because of problems with identity theft. I did that and I got my new birth certificate, but should I be worried?

Alfonso: I believe it was beginning in July of 2010 that [the Puerto Rican government] invalidated all the prior certificates that were issued precisely because they had a problem in which thousands upon thousands of birth certificates were being sold to undocumented immigrants largely from other Latin American countries so they could get U.S. passports. The new birth certificates were supposed to be tamper-resistant and fraud proof. That apparently didn't happen because people kept selling them, perhaps on a lesser scale. The Justice Department did share a lot of the details of the recent arrests, but it's likely the people who were arrested in Puerto Rico may have been working inside government offices; that may have given them access to the new birth certificates tamper proof or not. 

Luis: Remind us again why the Puerto Rican birth certificate is such a popular item to try to get.

Alfonso: To many Latin American undocumented immigrants, a Puerto Rican birth certificate would be like striking gold because it gives them access to a U.S. passport. And at least for a while they can pass for U.S. citizens because Puerto Ricans speak Spanish. Latin American undocumented immigrants speak Spanish. Some experts may be able to tell the difference if they can detect different accents. But other than that, there's really no difference.

Luis: As a Puerto Rican, what do we do to protect ourselves?

Alfonso: I think that if somebody had bought your old or new birth certificate you would know by now, because if you travel outside of the United States and then come back, when you come back and if your name is on some kind of a watch list because they're looking for the person who is not you, you're going to be pulled aside and questioned and eventually that will tell right away that you're OK.