By July 1 of this year, Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico and the United States will have to hand over five dollars and work through a maze of agencies to acquire a new “fraud proof” birth certificate to establish their birth en la isla del encanto. This new law was brought to you courtesy of Puerto Rico’s Governor Luis Fortuno and Commonwealth Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock. The reason they gave for changing the law was to prevent identity fraud and thwart terrorism. Perhaps? But there are more questions than answers with this new headache.
There has been a lot of internet and newspaper claims that Puerto Rico is one of the major sources of identity fraud. This is questionable. One widely circulated report is that Puerto Rico represents “approximately 40 percent of the 8,000 cases of passport fraud” investigated by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Most experts would doubt this claim. First, because the actual report states that the 40% was of the 8,000 cases investigated “recently.” Secondly, most of the news accounts conflate passport fraud with identity theft. The two are not the same. In fact, the total number of identity fraud cases in any year in the U.S., according to the Federal Trade Commission, is about ten million. So, the Puerto Rican originated cases of passport fraud used to justify the new birth certificates actually represent only 0.00032 percent of all cases (.40 x 8,000/10,000,000). Of the ten million cases of identity theft each year, 67 percent, take place through credit cards with another 19 percent involve stealing information on checking and savings accounts.
Third, the problem with birth certificates is a lot greater in other places in the U.S. one major reason why birth certificates are so easy to forge is the enormous variety that exists. Government authorities report that there are over 14,000 different types of birth certificates in circulation in the U.S. and that every year about 4 to 5 million births are registered. In addition, the government estimates that between 85 and 90 percent of birth certificate fraud involve “genuine birth certificates used by imposters.” While the new birth certificates will be harder to forge, it will not be impossible. In any case, the passage of a new PASS ID law will permit the states to have until at least 2017, and possibly later, before they need to comply with the new standards. In addition, the possibility of fraud and identity theft may actually increase with full compliance to the new laws. The creation of distributed networks between the 56 states and territories under the existing REAL ID law essentially means, “each can access all others through a “hub”-based network.” Potentially, this means that any breach of security can deliver millions of identities to a trespasser from either the inside or outside. Such breaches occur all the time. A data breach in Oregon, for example, resulted in the loss of half a million records in 2005.
Puerto Rican, thus, appears to be leading the pack on this issue compared to many other states and territories. Identity card changes were set in motion by the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. Among other things, this law set minimum standards for birth certificates. In 2005, Congress passed the REAL ID law to establish changes in the way that states and territories issued and certified identity cards like driver’s licenses. This law met with resistance from a variety of sources. States objected to the large uncompensated expense required to meet the new ID requirements. Many raised constitutional and privacy concerns. Twenty-one states passed laws that directly opposed implementing REAL ID. Forty-six states were not in compliance with REAL ID as of late 2009. There were also many who opposed the law for religious, immigration protection, or gun freedom reasons. None of this stopped the previous Puerto Rican Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila from announcing on July 7, 2008 that 15 Puerto Rican government agencies would comply with the REAL ID Act. The unrelenting opposition from many sectors forced congress and the Department of Homeland Security to amend the original law.
A new identity law was introduced in the Senate in 2009 called the PASS Act. This new bill essentially waters down the provisions in REAL ID and provides more compensation to states and territories. It has yet to pass the Congress. Given the opposition to the existing REAL ID law and the many unresolved financial, political, and constitutional issues, one wonders why the Puerto Rican government was so quick to move on changing their birth certificate forms? Whatever the government’s interest in making this change, it does raise political, financial, and ideological concerns.
Governor Acevedo Vila started the transformation. Governor Fortuno accelerated it. Both could have had political (opposite) reasons for going down a path that 46 states refused to take. Puerto Rico is hardly in better financial shape than those states in their ability to afford the administrative and technological mechanisms to make this change. While the federal government provides grants to make the transition possible, the amounts allocated to Puerto Rico are not very significant. REAL ID funding to Puerto Rico were $300,000 in FY 2008 and $600,000 in FY 2009. This would hardly make a dent in Puerto Rico’s central government’s nine billion dollar annual budget. How much of the interest in moving Puerto Rico so quickly to this new birth certificate system is an indication of colonial, or even post-colonial, thinking?
Historically, many different types of governments have used national identity cards to control the flow of people. Most of these efforts were motivated by concerns and fear about people with religious, political, ethnic, or racial differences. The Apartheid government in South Africa used them. They were also used during the American colonial period to control the movements of Native Americans and of African Americans. The opposition to the possible adoption of a national identification card may not be only a concern for those on the right. Those on the left need to be just as concerned about any new system that offers the U.S. State much greater ability to control the movements of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, or any other member of the Latino community. This is especially true as plans to again reexamine and decide the status of Puerto Rico move forward.