Happy July, especially if you were born in Puerto Rico.

2010 July 7

Due to Puerto Rico‘s history as a Spanish colony (1493-1898) and a US colony/possession (since 1898), it has some unusual legal traditions and practices. Until very recently, common practice on the island was that if you needed to present a birth certificate as a proof of identity, you ordered extra copies of that document, and the (school/city/etc) kept that copy on file for its records.

That practice led to lots of extra birth certificates floating around, which happen to have a high resale value. There’s been at least one criminal operation busted for stealing birth certificate copies and reselling them.

Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917, when the Jones Act took effect, but the territorial government’s been making it very difficult to prove one’s citizenship lately.

Because some people were using Puerto Rican birth certificates to evade US immigration-restriction policies, Puerto Rico’s territorial government was taking a lot of heat from the federal government for not doing anything to prevent identity fraud. The legislature decided to implement new, “more secure” birth certificate documents, and so it declared that as of July 1, all Puerto Rican birth certificates ever issued would be invalid.

This decision affects an estimated 4-5 million US citizens, most of whom happen to have Spanish last names and/or brown skin. Furthermore, because US economic policies have hobbled Puerto Rico’s economy, many people born there now live on the US mainland, particularly in cities like New York, Atlanta, and Chicago. If they want to travel back to the island, they have to go by air, which means they need photo ID— which they can’t acquire or renew unless they present a birth certificate or passport. Moreover, they have to know about the invalidation of their existing birth certificates in order to know that they need a new one, and the news hasn’t been particularly widely disseminated.

At the last minute, on June 30, the Puerto Rican government extended the validity of existing birth certificates until September 30 of this year. So the several million Americans whose basic citizenship documents were about to be useless have been given a reprieve.

I’m told that the territorial Department of Health has posted its instructions for getting a new birth certificate here and that one can do all the necessary requests online.1 As of this writing, the server seems not to be responding. I’m guessing that it’s overloaded with the demand, and I can’t say that I’m surprised.

Government inability to document its citizens is an old phenomenon in the US. During World War II, US state governments couldn’t work fast enough to satisfy the demand for birth certificates. At the height of the war, states with large populations handled hundreds of thousands of requests for birth certificates, but many people who needed birth certificates and sent their requests by mail waited weeks or months to get a reply.

Studying the history of birth certificate bureaucracies in the US is interesting because it shows how government systems that try to be perfect never quite achieve their ambitions. (Fans of James C. Scott’s work may find this concept familiar.)

On average, native-born Americans have been less likely to have usable birth certificates if they were older, born in rural areas, lived in Spanish-speaking communities, or weren’t white.

Even so, not all US-born people in the 20th century knew that they needed a birth certificate. Well into the 1960s and 1970s, the Chicago Tribune regularly answered how-do-I-get-a-birth-certificate questions from would-be retirees who couldn’t prove that they were 65 because their births weren’t registered with government when they were young.

Entitlements like Social Security proved to be a powerful incentive for ordinary people to get (and keep track of) birth certificates, but state governments had to build bureaucratic infrastructures that could support citizens’ demand for that basic identity document. That process took a lot longer than 2 years. Without an understanding of how those systems’ imperfections touched ordinary people’s lives, we can’t appreciate the wide-ranging effects of contemporary identity-document policies.

Puerto Rico’s current birth certificate situation is a case where governments’ will to enforce outstrips their ability to administer large-scale policies evenly. Regardless of whether the existing birth certificates are voided in September or at some later date, the legislature’s decision will have profound implications for Puerto Ricans’ practical ability to claim the rights, privileges, and entitlements that apply, in theory, to all Americans.

  1. I haven’t seen any examples of the new birth certificates, but I would love to know what anti-counterfeiting measures they implement. The BBC’s story says a little bit, but I’d welcome comments with descriptions of their distinguishing features.