‘That birth certificate is unacceptable’

‘That birth certificate is unacceptable’

Jersey City finally regaining authority to issue official documents

Steve Fulop cradles his newborn son, Jaxon, last year. Jaxon was born in Jersey City, but significantly after 2004, so his birth certificate is fine. (Steve Fulop)
Steve Fulop cradles his newborn son, Jaxon, last year. Jaxon was born in Jersey City, but significantly after 2004, so his birth certificate is fine. (Steve Fulop)

One day, maybe 10 years ago, give or take, because really, who remembers the details, Brenda Preschel Sutcliffe of Teaneck went to a New Jersey motor vehicle office — she thinks it was the one in Lodi, but really, who remembers the details.

The next part she remembers.

She’d gone to renew her driver’s license, she said. (Full disclosure — Brenda is an advertising representative at the Jewish Standard. She’s not Ms. Sutcliffe. She’s Brenda.) Usually she did it by mail, and there never had been a problem, but this year she’d let the deadline get away from her. It was too late to do it in any other way than in person. So there she was, at the DMV, with six forms of identification in hand, waiting on a very long line.

The line was so long, she remembers, that a DMV employee walked down it, checking ID, ensuring that everything was in order by the time you got to the window.

Everything wasn’t in order.

“When I gave him my ID, he said it wasn’t good. It wasn’t acceptable,” Brenda said. “I asked him why, and he said that’s because you’re from Hudson County.” Like all her 23 siblings and first cousins, she was born in Jersey City.

“He told me that my birth certificate wasn’t acceptable, and that I’d have to get a new one from Trenton. I said, ‘Now how would I know that?’ and he said, ‘Didn’t you see the sign?”

But “I said, ‘What sign?’” Brenda reported. And he said, “‘Oh. Yeah. Right. The sign is down.’”

So Brenda didn’t have enough ID; not surprisingly, her ketuba — she’d brought her marriage certificate with her — wasn’t good enough either.

The point of this story is that it wasn’t only Brenda. She did eventually get her birth certificate, and was able to renew her driver’s license, but only after getting it sent up to her from Trenton, and only after haunting the DMV, being turned down until they couldn’t turn her down any more.

What was going on?

It goes back to Hudson County’s status as a corrupt place, where legal issues could be fixed, if the price was right, and voting results were often padded with names of the dead. Former Governor Brendan Byrne famously said: “I’d like to be buried in Hudson County so I can stay active in politics.” In a scandal uncovered in 2004, local functionaries sold birth certificates and other forms of official identity; their customers included people who were in the county illegally. That’s never a good thing to do, and it was particularly bad in the wake of 9/11.

So the federal and state governments both refused to recognize birth certificates or passports issued in Hudson County. That affected everyone born before 2006. So if you didn’t renew your passport before it expired, for example, you’d have to go to Trenton before you could go to Paris. Or Jerusalem. Or, for that matter, Montreal.

Oddly, news of this ban did not travel very far, even though many people who live in northern New Jersey came from Hudson County. They generally found out that they had a problem the way that Brenda did — as an unpleasant surprise after they’d already been standing on a very long line.

But now Jersey City’s Mayor Steve Fulop has fixed the problem. Once again, if you were born in Jersey City — and if you were born in Hudson County the odds are that you were born in Jersey City — you can get your birth certificate there.

“Margaret Hague Hospital was like a baby factory in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s,” Mr. Fulop said. “Tens of thousands of babies were born there, and then they moved.”

“There were concerns about the documents being fraudulent,” he said. “It’s what you would expect in old Hudson County. Fraudulent documents were being issued, and so we were cut off.

“You had to go to Trenton; if you don’t have a car, you’d have to go by mass transit, and that’s a whole day.

“We needed help from Senator Booker” — that’s Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator now running to be the Democratic nominee for president — “but now we expect that in the next couple of weeks, we’ll be able to do it here.”

Not being able to get documents locally “is a frequent complaint,” Mr. Fulop said. “It has been an ongoing complaint here for many years. It is a great service to have back in Jersey City.”

What was going on there? Why did it happen?

“The county and this city historically have had a lot of colorful characters,” Mr. Fulop said carefully. “And it has a lot of people who have served jail time because of improprieties in public service. But it is good that the state is giving this back to us, and it speaks to a lot of the changes we’ve made here.”

But what actually happened?

Robert Byrne, Jersey City’s city clerk, explained.

“There was a fraud committed by employees,” he said. He’s 60 years old, and he’s been in the city clerk’s office since he was 29, so he has real institutional memory.

“Let me tell you my personal story. I was born in Margaret Hague, in Jersey City, and an envelope with my birth certificate was mailed to my parents’ house maybe a month later. Stamps were what then? Six cents? That’s the birth certificate I used for most of my life.

“Then the state came out with safety paper — there hadn’t been any uniform paper used in the state until then — that made vital records look like currency, with watermarks, serial numbers, safety threads. If you tried to photocopy it, the word ‘VOID’ would come up.

“I went to the county and got my second birth certificate. I thought that the state would want the new paper. That there would be less hassle.”

He was wrong.

Falsifying records does not make fake records true, he said. “I could get a fake certificate that said that Robert Byrne married Christie Brinkley. That wouldn’t mean that I would be married to Christie Brinkley.”

The scheme unraveled when someone who had gotten one fake birth certificate wanted a second one. But he asked the wrong clerk, someone who wasn’t in on the scheme and didn’t want to be. The result was that for about a decade, Jersey City could not issue any documents.

No one was arrested, Mr. Byrne said, somewhat ruefully. Everyone involved was fired, though, and he reports having seen one of them working at Home Depot.

For decades, people would have to go to Trenton for official documents because, Mr. Byrne said, “say you were getting married.” (He talks a lot about marriages rather than births or deaths because until recently his office handled only marriage certificates. “We did only the happy things,” he said.)

“Your rabbi would have to fill out a four-part form. He or she would send the first two to the registrar in the town in which the event occurs, one would go to the couple, and one would be for his or her own records.” The registrar would send one of the forms to Trenton.

Now, though, the records are being digitized. The process is almost completed and the politicians have given the go-ahead, so as soon as it’s fully done, anyone born or married in Jersey City, at any time, will be able to get records from there once again.

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