For millions of native-born Puerto Ricans living on the island or abroad, July 1 looms as a critical date.

"They say we need new birth certificates" beginning that day, 72-year-old Jose Cabrera said between rounds of Pokeno at a heavily Latino senior center on Norris Square in North Philadelphia. "But I don't know if this will bring a solution to the problem."

The problem: rampant identity theft by Hispanic immigrants - often from the Dominican Republic - who use stolen Puerto Rican birth certificates to obtain U.S. passports, Social Security benefits, and other federal services available to Puerto Ricans because they are U.S. citizens.

In a recent sample of 8,000 passport fraud cases investigated by the State Department, 40 percent involved Puerto Rican birth documents purchased illegally for as much as $10,000.

Puerto Rico's drastic remedy is to invalidate all birth certificates July 1 - including 1.3 million in the 50 states, with 250,000 in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey. The new documents, requiring an online or mail application and a $5 fee, will have improved anti-forgery features, such as special paper imported from Italy.

Proponents say the change, made in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, will instantly wipe out the value of any stolen certificates on the black market.

The problem isn't news to Sonia Marquez, 64, another daily visitor to the Norris Square senior center. Some years ago, she said, her adult son, who was born in Puerto Rico, lost his wallet and birth certificate. Eventually, she said, "he found someone in Trenton was using his ID."

A Puerto Rican government study noted that "the common Hispanic names of most individuals born in Puerto Rico" had made the certificates "highly desirable on the black market." But the day-to-day customs of Puerto Rico also have contributed to the plague of certificate theft.

"Many official and unofficial transactions," such as registering a child for school or joining a church, require people to submit and relinquish certified copies of birth certificates, the study said. Consequently, "hundreds of thousands" of the documents have been "easy targets."

A person typically has more than a dozen certified copies in different locations, under different degrees of security, said Sarah Echols, a Washington spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.

Under the new law, certified birth certificates no longer will be required for mundane transactions, she said. If an institution wants the document for its records, it may make a photocopy, so individuals won't have to keep a pile of certified certificates.

"That's the practice that is coming to an end," Echols said. Hereafter, "it will be kind of like 'one and done.' "

At the Norris Square senior center, Cabrera is skeptical that new birth documents will solve illegal Hispanic immigration. An Air Force veteran, he came to the mainland in 1974, and worked for the U.S. Postal Service and the Philadelphia School District before retiring in 2002.

Spanish-speaking immigrants from impoverished countries, Cabrera said, will always have an economic incentive to pose as Puerto Ricans to try to obtain their same benefits.

Sandra Andino, education director at Taller Puertorriqueño, an artists' collective that calls itself "the cultural heart of Latino Philadelphia," was raised in Puerto Rico, but born in New York. Even though the coming change will not directly affect her, she said, she has empathy for Puerto Ricans facing the "bureaucratic hassle" of applying for new documents.

"Isn't there another way to catch identity thieves without putting the burden on innocent victims?" she asked.

Advocates of the new law say the burden, if any, is slight.

Anticipating a surge of applications, Puerto Rico has added temporary staff to its vital-statistics offices in San Juan. On May 24, it announced the start of an online application process aimed particularly at those living Stateside.

Applications also can be ordered by mail.

Depending on the volume, officials anticipate a processing time of about a month.

State Sen. Christine M. Tartaglione (D., Phila.), who has many Puerto Rican constituents, said she was concerned that "bureaucratic delays" could affect younger Puerto Ricans who could need proof of birth to sign up for any of the thousands of summer jobs she helped create through legislation.

She has pressed Puerto Rican officials in Washington and New York to heed the urgency of some applications.

The certificate changeover "is an extraordinary situation," Tartaglione said, "and an extraordinary effort must be made to make it work."

How to Apply for a Puerto Rican Birth Certificate

By following instructions in English and Spanish at www.pr.gov, the applicant fills out a form, scans and uploads required photo-identification documents (a driver's license or passport, for example), and pays $5 for the new certificate via Visa or MasterCard. The fee is waived for people older than 60 and veterans. The applicant gets a receipt and instructions on how to check the status of the order.

Mail applications also can be submitted. Forms are available on the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration website, www.prfaa.com/birthcertificates, and will be accepted on or after July 1. They must include a copy of a valid, government-issued photo ID. Also required is a $5 money order payable to the Secretary of the Treasury of Puerto Rico, and a postage-paid, self-addressed return envelope.

Applicants outside Puerto Rico should send the form to the Puerto Rico Vital Statistics Office, Registro Demografico, Box 11854, San Juan, P.R. 00910.

Anyone with an immediate need for a birth certificate after July 1 - for instance, for a marriage license - can contact the vital statistics records office at 787-767-9120.

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.