Let’s Clarify Citizenship for Puerto Rico

In the late 1990s, a local court in Puerto Rico ruled that an individual could renounce U.S. citizenship and continue to live in Puerto Rico as a citizen of Puerto Rico. Author Howard Hills described this as a “stunt” — but we think many of our readers won’t know about this interesting episode in the history of Puerto Rico, so we want to share the story with you.

People can choose to give up their U.S. citizenship, as long as they have citizenship elsewhere. It’s strongly advised that people who have only U.S. citizenship not give it up, and usually they will not be allowed to do so. One example of renunciation of citizenship is an individual who gave up U.S. citizenship in order to become the President of Lithuania. Generally speaking, people who want to renounce their U.S. citizenship have to be outside the U.S. at the time, and they can’t return to the United States without taking the same steps as other aliens, such as applying for a visa.

In the 1990s, several Puerto Ricans, including Alberto Lozada Colón and Juan Mari Brás, left Puerto Rico for neighboring countries, where they renounced their U.S. citizenship. They had claimed that they were citizens of Puerto Rico, but not of the United States. They immediately tried to return to Puerto Rico on the strength of that Puerto Rico citizenship.

In other words, they wanted to show that they could live in Puerto Rico as citizens of Puerto Rico, even though they were no longer citizens of the United States.

It didn’t work in Maine

A citizen of Maine, Gary Davis, had previously done much the same thing. He renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1948 and then headed home to the United States.

Declaring himself a citizen of the world, Davis spent his life protesting nationalism. He tried to become a legal resident of New Hampshire, since he had been born in Maine and therefore would be allowed to live in New Hampshire. The United States courts disagreed, ruling that his renunciation of U.S. citizenship meant that he could no longer freely travel and live in the United States.

It didn’t work in Puerto Rico

Alberto Lozada Colón, an independence supporter, tried the same thing 50 years later. He went to the Dominican Republic and renounced his citizenship. Knowing that he planned to live in Puerto Rico, the State Department refused to accept his renunciation. Since he planned to live in Puerto Rico, an action available to U.S. citizens, he clearly didn’t really mean to give up the rights and privileges of his U.S. citizenship.

Lozada Colon fought back, but he lost all his appeals.

The case of Juan Mari Brás was similar. In this case, a Puerto Rico court declared that Mari Bras could vote in Puerto Rico even though he had renounced his U.S. citizenship. The State Department, seeing that he not only continued to live in Puerto Rico but also to work and even to vote there, declared that Mari Bras had not sincerely intended to give up his U.S. citizenship, and took back that renunciation.

“Similar to a State of the Union,” wrote former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, “Puerto Rico has sufficient sovereignty over its internal affairs under the local constitution to prescribe the qualifications of voters. However, Puerto Rico’s local sovereignty is a statutory delegation of the authority of Congress to govern territories, and is not a vested, guaranteed or permanent form of sovereignty like the states have under the 10th Amendment. Even if it were, no State of the Union, much less an unincorporated commonwealth territory, has the power to declare that the citizenship of the state or territory survives legally effective renunciation of U.S. nationality and citizenship.”

In other words, Puerto Rico has no citizenship of its own apart from the United States, any more than Maine does.

Puerto Rico’s status

Thornburgh went on to say, “It is becoming more clear every day that either statehood or separate nationhood are the only viable solutions to the problem of Puerto Rico’s political status.”

Rep. George Gekas, speaking to Congress about the Mari Bras case, said, “It seems quite clear that the people of Puerto Rico want equal political standing under a form of full self-government. Who can blame people who have been within the U.S. political system for 100 years for wanting constitutionally guaranteed citizenship, with the ability to pass their nationality to the next generation without fear that it could be terminated by a future Congress? That is why they voted for leaders who told them the truth about the fact that they can not achieve that result under unincorporated territory status because the current form of political union with the United States itself is not permanent. Indeed, under the territorial clause Congress has the discretionary power to end the conferral of U.S. citizenship for persons born in Puerto Rico starting tomorrow if it so chooses.”

So Puerto Rico is not really in the same position as Maine. You can’t be a citizen of Maine without also being a citizen of the United States. The same is true for Puerto Rico. But citizens of Puerto Rico don’t have permanent U.S. citizenship, as the people of Maine do. As a territory, Puerto Rico does not have the rights and powers of a state.

Puerto Rico’s current status as an unincorporated territory, and the continued stunts by those who claim against all the evidence that there is some Fantasy Island option for Puerto Rico’s future status, are obstacles to Puerto Rico’s economic recovery and development.

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