Q and A With Brenda Saunders Sprague: September 2011

NCSL Resources

Brenda Saunders Sprague, U.S. State Department

U.S. Department of State officials are concerned about people using other people’s valid birth certificates to obtain passports. The department is trying to bring more attention to the problem and particularly wants to inform state lawmakers about the role they can play in preventing this type of fraud.

Brenda Saunders Sprague, deputy assistant secretary for passport services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, spoke with State Legislatures about the scope of the problem.

State Legislatures: Give us an overview of this problem of people using genuine birth certificates to fraudulently obtain passports.

Brenda Saunders Sprague: The Department of State, through its Bureau of Consular Affairs, receives on average 13 million passport applications annually. Of those, only a small fraction—less than .1 percent—of the applications are suspected to be fraudulent. In about 77 percent of these suspect fraud cases, a genuine, unaltered birth certificate was presented to support the false claim to U.S. citizenship.

SL: How widespread is the problem?

Sprague: In comparison to the more than 103 million valid U.S. passports currently in circulation, we detect a few thousand known fraud cases each year, but there are certainly more out there that we are not able to detect, in part because we do not have access to all of the states’ vital records. The use of a genuine, unaltered birth certificate is the No. 1 method used by fraudsters to obtain a genuine U.S. passport. Preventing passport fraud is the No. 1 priority for Passport Services, and the key is maintaining the integrity of the passport adjudication process.

SL: Do you have a sense of who these people are? Is this related to criminal activity, terrorism, or people in the country illegally?

Sprague: Many instances of passport fraud are committed by individuals who are claiming U.S. citizenship even though they are not U.S. citizens. From law enforcement reports, we can tell that individuals involved in criminal activities also commit passport fraud. They are trying to evade capture or prosecution by legal authorities, conducting criminal enterprises such as drug smuggling or securities fraud, evading child support payments, or obtaining a new driver’s or long-haul trucker’s license despite a troubled driving history.

SL: What can state lawmakers do to help prevent this?

Sprague: The responsibility of Passport Services is to determine that each passport applicant is a U.S. citizen, that they are who they say they are, and that there are no legal impediments to their travel. States have the ultimate responsibility for issuing the vital and other records upon which we rely to make our decisions. Most applicants present a birth certificate issued by a state, county or local government to establish their claim to U.S. citizenship. Most applicants present a state-issued driver’s license to establish their identity.

But the state system has its problems. There are more than 6,400 state and local jurisdictions issuing birth certificates with over 14,000 versions of birth records in circulation. Thirteen states have “open” access to birth records, which allows virtually anyone to request copies of birth certificates on file. There is not, at this time, any central database that permits us to verify the integrity of the documents that are presented in support of passport applications.

Similarly, each state and U.S. territory has its own standards and protocols for issuing drivers’ licenses. These variations range from states that require fingerprints and conduct facial recognition for each applicant to states that issue a single life-time validity license.

Standardizing birth certificate requirements, including establishing a Central Issuance Authority in each state, working to close “open-record” states, and encouraging all states to participate in the Electronic Verification of Vital Events (EVVE), a system that allows for the verification of vital events, maintained by the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS), are just a few of the recommendations the department believes would help prevent passport fraud. In addition, we advocate stringent identification requirements and strong criminal sanctions on those who seek to acquire and use birth certificates and identity documents for illicit means.

SL: Have any states taken action on the State Department’s recommendations?

Sprague: Thirty-four of the 57 states and territories participate in EVVE for verification of birth records, and five others are in the process of enrolling. Of the 10 states with the largest number of residents who have valid passports, only four are currently enrolled in EVVE—with one additional state scheduled to do so in the coming year. Only 20 of the 57 participate in EVVE for verification of death records. We continue to coordinate with NAPHSIS to expand the reach of EVVE and improve the quality of this nationwide vital events verification database.

SL: What are the key elements you think should be in state legislation?

Sprague: These are the steps we recommend:

  • Adopt the “model” birth certificate as defined by the National Center for Health Statistics as the standard for all issuing authorities in the state.
  • A central issuance authority—one database maintained at the state level that can be accessed at the local level.
  • One birth certificate form per state printed on security paper; include security features such as intaglio and offset printing, inkjet personalization, optically variable ink and watermarks.
  • Restrict access to vital records only to individuals who have a legitimate need for access and use additional tools to validate identity before providing certified copies.
  • Strengthen criminal penalties for those who acquire and use birth certificates and identity documents for illicit means.

SL: Are there additional costs to the state or to individuals if this type of law is enacted?

Sprague: In discussions with state government officials and national associations, such as NAPHSIS, there are two major factors deterring states from enacting this type of legislation. The first is funding, particularly in the event of converting archived paper records to an electronic version. The second is the complications posed by the disparate levels of technology employed by the various jurisdictions, some of which use little to no electronic recordkeeping while others are fully automated.

As states move to modernize and increase the security of their vital and identity records system, the costs of these upgrades may be passed on to their customers, making these documents more expensive for consumers.

SL: Are there groups that oppose this type of legislation? Why?

Sprague: Privacy advocacy groups have expressed opposition to legislation that would establish a national standard for issuing state drivers’ licenses and other forms of state-issued records that is linked to a centralized database. They express concern about the potential for internal compromise or misuse of the vast amount of personal information that would be contained in the system. The department believes that privacy and security safeguards can be established and enforced to protect against unauthorized use of the data.

Consumer groups may be concerned about the potential for increased costs to consumers for birth records and drivers’ licenses as states seek to upgrade their issuance systems.