Puerto Rico, the Nationality Act, and U.S. Citizenship

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. More than three million U.S. citizens live in Puerto Rico — a larger population than in 20 of the 50 states.

We recently said that anyone born in Puerto Rico in the last hundred years is a U.S. citizen. One of our readers was not so sure about that, so we are going to take a closer look at that claim.

There are two laws relevant to this question.

Jones-Shafroth Act

First, the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917. Here is what this law said about U.S. citizenship for Puerto Rico:

“That all citizens of Porto Rico…and all natives of Porto Rico who were temporarily absent from that island on April eleventh, eighteen hundred and ninety-nine, and have since returned and are permanently residing in that island, and are not citizens of any foreign country, are hereby declared, and shall be deemed and held to be, citizens of the United States.”

The law went on to explain that anyone in this group who chose not to become a U.S. citizen could keep his or her previous alliance by making a declaration saying he or she didn’t want to become a U.S. citizen.

This law conferred citizenship on people born in Puerto Rico and living there, as well as on any other citizen of Puerto  Rico. This was statutory citizenship, not citizenship guaranteed by the Constitution.

US Code 1402

The U.S. code is a compilation of the laws the United States. U.S. code 1402 is part of the Immigration and Nationality Act. It confirmed U.S. citizenship for people born in Puerto Rico, in these words:

“All persons born in Puerto Rico on or after April 11, 1899, and prior to January 13, 1941, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, residing on January 13, 1941, in Puerto Rico or other territory over which the United States exercises rights of sovereignty and not citizens of the United States under any other Act, are declared to be citizens of the United States as of January 13, 1941. All persons born in Puerto Rico on or after January 13, 1941, and subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, are citizens of the United States at birth.”

One of our readers suggested that this law didn’t apply to all Puerto Ricans.

Everyone born in Puerto Rico and living in Puerto Rico became a citizen of the United States in 1917 — unless they chose not to do so. The 1941 declaration also says that everyone born in Puerto Rico after January 13th, 1941, is a citizen of the United States at birth.

“Subject to the jurisdiction of the United States”

This is only true as long as Puerto Rico is subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. So, if Puerto Rico had become independent, people born in Puerto Rico would not continue too be birthright citizens of the United States.
Since this did not take place, everyone born after 1941 in Puerto Rico is a natural-born U.S. citizen.

For people born between 1899 and 1941, there is another caveat. They must have been “subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, residing on January 13, 1941, in Puerto Rico or other territory over which the United States exercises rights of sovereignty.”

So the law applies to people living in Puerto Rico or in another place under the sovereignty of the United States. Someone born in Puerto Rico in 1940 but living in a state or in Guam in January of 1941 would be covered.

However, someone who was born in Puerto Rico in 1912 who moved to Japan before 1917 and remained there in 1941 would not have been considered a U.S. citizen.

There is actually a legal case which brought up this point. It was about a man who was born in Puerto Rico in 1902, but who did not live there in 1941. The judge initially decided that he was not a U.S. citizen.

“And not citizens under any other act”

The law also said that this applied to people born in Puerto Rico between 1899 and 1941, living in a place governed by the United States, “and not citizens of the United States under any other Act.” In other words, this law was for people who should have been citizens under the Jones-Shafroth Act but who for some reason were not already citizens. It was a confirmation of the U.S. citizenship of people from Puerto Rico, and also cleaned up any leftover issues. For example, people who had perhaps chosen not to become U.S. citizens in 1917 were covered by this new law in 1941.

The legal case mentioned above? The decision was reversed on appeal, when the court realized that the man in question had become a citizen in 1917 under the Jones-Shafroth Act.

Are there any real exceptions?

There could be someone born in Puerto Rico between 1899 and 1917, who chose not to become a U.S. citizen in 1917, and who also moved away from Puerto Rico before 1941 and was living in a foreign country at that time.

If this person never applied to become a U.S. citizen and is still living now, he or she would be that exception: a person who was born in Puerto Rico but is not a U.S. citizen. In order to have been old enough to make a citizenship decision in 1917, this individual would actually have had to be born in 1899, and would therefore be at least 120 years old now.

We don’t think there are any such people. Also, they would not have been born in Puerto Rico in the last hundred years. Anyone born in Puerto Rico in 1920 would have been a citizen under the Jones-Shafroth Act.

So we are confident that everyone born in Puerto Rico in the last hundred years is a U.S. citizen.

Second class citizens?

People born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. If they live in a state, they have the full rights of American citizens. They can vote in presidential elections. They have senators representing them in Washington. They can get Child Tax credits and Earned Income Tax Credits, even if they don’t earn enough to pay income taxes.

If they live in Puerto Rico, however, they face inequality every day. This is wrong. Puerto Rico is ready to become a state, and Puerto Ricans will gain equality when the Island becomes a state.

Let your legislators know that you want statehood for Puerto Rico.

One Comment

Dennis O Freytes

Good Review! But, statutory US Citizens (born in PR)–don’t have full rights when residing in a State, because they don’t have a right to permanent US Citizenship. As Constituents, they should contact their US President; Representatives; fight for Fair Treatment-Equal Rights for Puerto Ricans; ask the Federal Government to provide the US Territory of Puerto Rico–EQUALITY+PROGRESS=STATEHOOD with DIGNITY!

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