Born in a U.S. territory where he has lived all his life, Jose Marrero Rivera didn't know his name and social security number were racking up thousands of dollars in unpaid charges in Chicago and Miami.
The snack bar worker is one of thousands of Puerto Ricans caught up in a lucrative document-fraud scheme to hide illegal immigrants in the United States. They're American citizens with Hispanic surnames. And their records – kept loosely in schools or church rectories, where they are easy to steal – draw as much as $6,000 on the black market.
Only when police showed up at Marrero's San Juan airport food stand to arrest him for car theft did he realize that identity thieves were upending his life.
"All the information, all of it, the driver's license, the Social Security, my address, was mine," he said of the warrant. "I was shocked. I told them simply that it wasn't me."
Documents stolen from Puerto Rico have shown up in fraud-ring busts in Delaware and Ohio and immigration raids on meatpacking plants from Texas to Florida. No government or law enforcement official can put a dollar amount on the illegal trade, but documents are so valuable that addicts on the island trade their own documents for drugs.
"Birth certificates have become legal tender," said Kenneth McClintock, Puerto Rico's secretary of state.
The island government's only answer so far is to void every Puerto Rican birth certificate as of July 1 and require about 5 million people – including 1.4 million on the U.S. mainland – to reapply for new ones with security features. New birth certificates will be issued starting July 1, and all old birth certificates will be annulled by Sept. 30.
But no one can guarantee the mass inconvenience will solve the problem. Untold numbers of passports, driver's licenses and other documents issued to holders of false birth certificates are still valid.
The law only aims to make it harder to get false documents in the future, but does nothing to target those already in circulation. And a person holding a stolen birth certificate could conceivably apply to receive one of the new ones, which will have special seals and be printed on counterfeit-proof paper – though they would have to present other personal data that they might not have, McClintock said.
"We had to take drastic measures," he said. "The new law does not pretend to solve all the problems. What it aims to do is resolve the massive theft problem."
The problem stems from the Puerto Rican tradition of requiring birth certificates to enroll in schools or join churches, sports team or other groups, which keep them in unsecured offices or drawers. The new law voiding all birth certificates prohibits such groups from keeping copies.
"I think people noticed that no one was paying attention to those documents," said a Puerto Rico-based FBI agent on the cases, who requested anonymity because the agent works under cover. "In the future, this could be linked to everything, even terrorism. I don't doubt that it could go that way."
But the bulk of the business now is selling to people who are living and working illegally in the U.S.
The most valued package comes with a birth certificate, a Social Security card and a driver's license – called a "tripleta" after Puerto Rico's renowned street sandwich stuffed with three types of meat, said Roberto Escobar of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Puerto Rico.
"They can custom order: 'I need two children and five adults,'" the FBI agent added.
Identity-theft rings have been busted in Puerto Rico and several states, with one accused of stealing the data of 7,000 public school children after breaking into more than 50 island schools over two years. In another case, an employee with the Puerto Rican Department of Motor Vehicles is accused of stealing 1,200 driver's-license renewal forms.
The new law comes at a time when Latinos are being increasingly scrutinized for their immigration status and deported in large numbers. It's causing problems for some Puerto Ricans who say their birth certificates already have been rejected when they applied for driver's licenses. Others have been required to answer questions about Puerto Rico to prove their citizenship, said Cesar Perales, president of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a civil rights group.
Some don't know the answers because they have lived on the mainland so long.
"There's now this cloud over Puerto Rican birth certificates," Perales said. "The timing, it seems to me, could not have been worse."
Under another law that takes effect in 2014, Puerto Ricans will have to obtain new driver's licenses with higher security features. Currently, the island has five different types of driver's licenses, which are sold for $100 to $150, said Puerto Rican police detective Jose Bejaran Mercado.
Carlos Morales, who lives with his family in Orlando, Fla., is among those who must reapply for a birth certificate.
Two years ago, someone filed a tax return using his Social Security number. Morales, who had been married for nearly 30 years, tried to explain why another woman claiming to be his wife filed the return.
"My wife even thought (I had) somebody else: 'Who is this woman trying to get five grand?'" he recalled her asking.
Marrero, the airport food worker, avoided arrest for car theft because he didn't match the police photo of the suspect. He reported a case of identity theft in 2004 after he applied for a loan to buy furniture and got turned down. But nothing happened in the six years since then – except that more people started using his information.
Besides stealing cars, people using his identity defaulted on loans in Miami and fell behind on credit-card payments in Chicago.
The 32-year-old married father of two called police a year after filing his identity-fraud complaint to ask about progress. He said local authorities were dismissive.
"They told me, 'There are cases more important than that little case,'" he said.
Meanwhile, his credit has been ruined.
"They won't even lend me money for an ice cream cone," he said. "There's a criminal who knows everything about my life, and I know nothing about his."