Ohio refusing some older Puerto Rican birth certificates; national Latino group charges racism
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Elizabeth Torres was stung when her 19-year-old son said he'd been turned down for a state-issued Ohio identification card because his birth certificate from Puerto Rico was considered invalid.
"We're not illegal aliens, we are citizens of this country," Torres said. "We have everything, all the documents and all that, but we are not treated as such."
People born in Puerto Rico are finding that older birth certificates from the U.S. territory are not being accepted when applying for a state ID or driver's license at the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, a reaction to concerns about possible fraud that a national Hispanic group said smacks of racial discrimination.
Since early April, the bureau has refused to accept Puerto Rican birth certificates issued before Jan. 1 as proof of identity and date of birth. The policy reflects a law on the island that will invalidate all older birth certificates on Sept. 30, the agency said.
"They are not placing credibility in their certificates," said Ohio BMV spokeswoman Lindsay Komlanc said. "For an agency that uses a birth certificate as one of the primary documents to be able to verify identity, that's something we have to look very hard at."
Ohio already has dealt with cases in which Puerto Rican birth certificates were used fraudulently. In a scheme uncovered in 2008, Puerto Rican certificates were being sold to illegal immigrants in Virginia, and they were then brought to Ohio to obtain state ID cards, Komlanc said.
At the time, federal prosecutors said that Ohio was chosen because it had looser procedures for obtaining identification at licensing bureaus. A federal judge in Harrisonburg, Va., last year sentenced one Columbus woman to a year in prison, while another — a clerk at a licensing office — received 30 months' probation.
Puerto Rico's law change followed raids last year against a criminal ring that stole thousands of birth certificates and other identifying documents from several schools in the U.S. commonwealth. The island is now requiring about 5 million people — including 1.4 million in the U.S. — to apply for new birth certificates with security features.
Puerto Rico began issuing the replacements July 1, but the older birth certificates are still valid for another month, Puerto Rico Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock said.
McClintock said he contacted Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland's deputy legal counsel last week to discuss the issue, arguing that the state was disregarding Puerto Rico's law.
Ohio has the nation's 10th largest Puerto Rican population, according to 2006-2008 Census data. The state had an estimated 26,498 residents born in Puerto Rico; Florida ranked first with 337,408, followed by New York with 318,239.
Based on current information, the Ohio governor's office sees no reason to change the state's policy, Strickland spokeswoman Amanda Wurst said.
"It is in an effort to address the safety and well-being of Ohioans and to avoid issuing identification cards with fraudulently acquired birth certificates," Wurst said.
Brent Wilkes, executive director of the 115,000-member League of United Latin American Citizens in Washington, D.C., charged that any state that has already decided the existing certificates are invalid is acting out of bias.
"Puerto Rico is being victimized because of the fact you've got so much attention on Latino immigrants in the United States," Wilkes said. "Puerto Ricans are not immigrants, but they're still Latinos."
Komlanc countered that Ohio also is cautious with other birth certificates, noting that the state won't accept a version of Indiana's birth certificate that does not include gender.
Representatives from Wilkes' group met Wednesday with Thomas Stickrath, director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, which oversees the BMV. He explained the agency's position and appreciated the opportunity for dialogue, Komlanc said. The meeting opened channels of communication, said Marilyn Zayas-Davis, Ohio legal adviser for LULAC.
North Dakota also places restrictions on Puerto Rican birth certificates and will not accept them without backup documentation. The policy has not been much of an issue, said Jamie Olson, a spokeswoman for the state's transportation department.
Other states have handled the Puerto Rican certificates less stringently. For example, officials said Kansas will honor birth certificates from Puerto Rico through Sept. 30, and Hawaii will accept them at least through that date.
Tom Jacobs a spokesman for the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, said the Puerto Rican government's directive caused four days of confusion, "but where we stand now, we will accept Puerto Rican birth certificates."
So will Arkansas, said Michael Munn, assistant commissioner of revenue for operations and administration. He said problems with validity of Puerto Rican birth certificates had arisen in fewer than 10 cases in Arkansas since the issue was brought to his office's attention early in the summer.
In Ohio, Torres' son, Alfredo Pagan, doesn't drive, but needed an Ohio ID card to take his high school equivalency test, his mother explained in her native Spanish.
"My son wants to get a job and help me with the house expenses and all that," said the 40-year-old Torres, a hotel housekeeper who left Puerto Rico 12 years ago and lives in Cleveland.
Ohio is willing to work with people born in Puerto Rico to see if they have other forms of documentation, such as a passport or school records, that can verify their identity, Komlanc said.
She said that part of the process apparently was not followed properly in the case of Alfredo Pagan, and the BMV is trying to contact him.
Associated Press Writers Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Sandra Chereb in Carson City, Nev.; John Hanna in Topeka, Kan.; Mark Niesse in Honolulu; and, Tom Parsons in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.