Citizen by Election: The Example of the Alsatian Optants | Puerto Rico 51st

Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon predicts that Congress will still note on HR8393 before the end of the year. HR8393, The Puerto Rico Status Act, ends the territorial status of Puerto Rico and provides for the voters of Puerto Rico to choose from three viable, non-territorial status options:

  • independence
  • free association
  • statehood

We fully expect that Puerto Rico will once again choose statehood, as the voters have done in three referenda so far in the 21st century. However, the other two possibilities are legal under the U.S. Constitution. Independence would be the end of U.S. sovereignty over Puerto Rico and the end of the official relationship between the new republic of Puerto Rico and the United States. Like the Philippines, a former territory of the United States, Puerto Rico would be a fully independent sovereign country.

This is what HR8393 says about citizenship:

“Puerto Rico has full authority and responsibility over its citizenship and immigration laws, and birth in Puerto Rico or relationship to persons with statutory United States citizenship by birth in the former territory shall cease to be a basis for United States nationality or citizenship, except that persons who have such United States citizenship have a right to retain United States nationality and citizenship for life, by entitlement or election as provided by Federal law.”

Free association would also result in a sovereign nation of Puerto Rico, and would include a special relationship with the United States. There are currently three nations in free association with the United States. None of the citizens of those countries are citizens of the United States, but they all have freedom to work and travel in the U.S. without a visa.

This is what HR8393 says about citizenship under free association:

“Puerto Rico has full authority and responsibility over its citizenship and immigration laws, and persons who have United States citizenship have a right to retain United States nationality and citizenship for life by entitlement or election as provided by Federal law.”

Citizenship by election

Both statements about citizenship say that current U.S. citizens may keep their “United States nationality and citizenship for life by entitlement or election as provided by Federal law.”

Keeping citizenship by entitlement would mean that the federal government agrees that current U.S. citizens born in Puerto Rico are entitled to keep their U.S. citizenship even while becoming citizens of Puerto Rico. This is what supporters of free association for Puerto Rico talk about. Rep. Nydia Velazquez has said that guaranteed U.S. citizenship is the “bare minimum” that the U.S. government owes Puerto Rico.

But all sovereign nations have control over their own citizenship laws, and this is true of the United States as well. If Congress agrees that Puerto Ricans are entitled to keep their U.S. citizenship, that will be federal law.

The other option is citizenship by “election.” What would that mean?

“Election” in this case doesn’t refer to a political race with voting. It just means “choice.” We can look to history for an example of citizenship by election.

An example

In the early 1870s, Prussia took Alsaçe-Lorraine from France. Some of the people living in that border area were from French families and some were from German families, and Prussia (now part of Germany) said that the people living there when the political status changed could choose their citizenship: they could become German citizens, or they could remain French citizens.

They did not get the option of keeping both citizenships.

The Alsatians were required to decide within two years which citizenship they wanted. They could opt for either one just by declaring their choice to the mayor of the city where they lived. They could opt for either, and those who chose to remain French were called “optants,” or “choosers” in French.

Those who were under 18 would make their choices on their 18th birthday.

The change of political status for Alsaçe-Lorraine was not pleasant or peaceful, and Germany required the optants to leave. They had to go to France to live. The law covered many details, such as what would happen if a member of one army chose citizenship in the other nation (they could leave the army) and a promise not to punish people for their decisions.

The United States has never had citizenship by election, but the U.S. could require that a person born inn Puerto Rico decide between being a citizen of the new Republic of Puerto Rico or a citizen of the United States. Puerto Rico could make the same requirement.

Puerto Rico could also determine that people who chose to remain U.S. citizens would have to leave Puerto Rico.

Would this happen?

This might not be the way citizenship laws work out in the United States and Puerto Rico if Puerto Rico were to choose independence or free association. It is the historical example we found.

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