Those who have heard about it, often by word of mouth, are confused about the process or angry about being singled out for a problem not of their own doing. Some contend that the drastic measure is unnecessary.
"I think it's something to be very, very upset about," said Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, a member of Connecticut's Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission and publisher of La Voz Hispana, a Spanish language weekly newspaper.
Werner Oyanadel, acting executive director of the commission, said he first heard about the situation in early March when he started getting calls from news reporters. He said he has begun organizing a way to educate local Puerto Ricans about the new law, even though no state money is available for a publicity campaign.
Without a birth certificate — the foundation of a person's legal identity — there could be problems getting a driver's license for the first time, obtaining a marriage license or qualifying for certain jobs or government benefits. Some isolated problems have already surfaced.
LatinoJustice, an advocacy group based in Washington, is particularly concerned about the consequences for Puerto Ricans in two cities — Hartford and Tampa, Fla. — because of the high percentage of island-born residents who live there.
Other Connecticut cities with significant Puerto Rican populations include New Haven, New Britain, Bridgeport, Waterbury and Willimantic.
The law authorizing the plan, approved by the commonwealth's legislature and signed by its governor Dec. 22, was set in motion earlier last year when the U.S. departments of State and Homeland Security told Puerto Rico officials that pilfered birth certificates were being used to fraudulently obtain documents such as passports or for identity theft, said Kenneth D. McClintock, Puerto Rico's secretary of state.
A U.S. Department of State study found that about 40 percent of fraudulent passports were obtained using birth certificates from Puerto Rico.
The genesis of the situation lies in a custom that appears to be unique to the island.
Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, must submit original birth certificates for
an array of activities, from enrolling in school to joining Little League. The organizations kept the documents, but few stored them securely.
Because the practice is to issue multiple original birth certificates — not copies — some people end up with 10, maybe 20, throughout the course of their lives.
McClintock said there are up to 20 million unsecured birth certificates on the island, which in turn attracted criminals who stole them to sell for up to $10,000 each on the black market. The fact that most of the certificates were for people with Latino surnames was ideal for human traffickers who smuggle migrants into the country.
Schools were a favorite target.
"They don't steal computers, they steal school records — and it's not to change your grade," McClintock said.
The new law forbids organizations from asking for original birth certificates. Copies can be requested, but even those can't be kept.
The new birth certificates will not be available until July 1. Even birth certificates issued a day before the deadline will become invalid.
Island-born Puerto Ricans, or others born there, such as the children of military personnel, can apply for a new one by certified mail or at the Demographic Registry in San Juan, said Luis Balzac, director of the regional office in New York of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which represents the island's government on the mainland. Balzac said the government is spreading the word by sending letters to mainland officials, contacting organizations and encouraging media coverage.
"Once we have the opportunity to share the information, the overwhelming majority are in favor of it," Balzac said.
But many Puerto Rican organizations are criticizing the island's government for poor communication about the plan.
The recession has taken a severe toll on Puerto Rico. Unemployment is hovering at about 15 percent and 17,000 commonwealth employees — about 10 percent of the workforce — have been laid off to reduce a $3.2 billion budget deficit. McClintock said there is no money to spend on a publicity campaign about birth certificates.