Two status bills have been under consideration in Congress for over a year. A third bill, The Puerto Rico Status Act, is now available as a discussion draft.
In a hearing on the earlier bills, the following exchange took place between Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana and constitutional scholar Dr.Christina-Ponsa-Kraus:
Mr. Graves: Dr.Ponsa-Kraus, in your opinion, would it be disingenuous to tell people, the people of Puerto Rico, that there are other constitutionally viable status options other than statehood, independence, or the current territorial status?
Dr. Ponsa-Kraus: Yes, it would be, and it has happened before, and it will hopefully never happen again.
Mr. Graves: Is free association independent?
Dr. Ponsa-Kraus: Free association is a form of independence, yes.
Mr. Graves: Has the United States ever granted blanket citizenship to the residents of an independent nation?
Dr. Ponsa-Kraus: No. It never has.
Mr. Graves: In an independent Puerto Rico under a treaty of free association, would U.S. citizenship be granted for future generations?
Dr. Ponsa-Kraus: Congress would have the power to do so, and Congress would also have the power to stop doing so.
This is an important point, and it is true under the new bill as much as it was under the old bills. There is no guarantee of continued citizenship for an independent Puerto Rico.
What does the compromise bill say about free association and citizenship?
The compromise bill says clearly that under sovereign free association, Puerto Rico would not be under the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution would not apply to Puerto Rico. The new constitution of the new nation of Puerto Rico would provide the laws of Puerto Rico.
On the subject of citizenship, the draft bill says this:
“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.”
“Birth in Puerto Rico shall cease to be a basis for United States nationality or citizenship, except that individuals born in Puerto Rico to parents both of whom are United States citizens shall be eligible to acquire United States citizenship for the duration of the first agreement of the Articles of Free Association.”
By entitlement or election
The first statement about citizenship confirms that, since U.S. laws will no longer have any force in Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico will be responsible for its own laws about citizenship. Assuming that a new nation of Puerto Rico allows dual citizenship, U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico will be able to keep their U.S. citizenship “by entitlement or election.”
People born in Puerto Rico could be entitled to U.S. citizenship as long as federal law allows it, but they might have to elect — that is, choose — U.S. citizenship. They may have to choose between U.S. citizenship and citizenship in the new nation of Puerto Rico.
The second statement says that people born in Puerto Rico to two U.S. citizens will be “eligible to acquire” citizenship. Steny Hoyer said that it would be “automatic at first,” but again that is not what the draft bill actually says.
Would Congress accept this?
The State Department had something to say on this question in a hearing on a Puerto Rico status bill in 1997.
Ambassador Fred M. Zeder II said that “[the] proposal that virtually 100% of the population of Puerto Rico could keep the current U.S. nationality and statutory citizenship and at the same time also acquire separate Puerto Rican nationality and citizenship under a new government-to-government treaty relationship establishing separate sovereignty, is legally inconsistent and politically incompatible with separate sovereignty for Puerto Rico.”
“This would amount to an upgrade,” he wrote, “based on a vote by the people of Puerto Rico to terminate U.S. sovereignty in Puerto Rico.”
The Natural Resources Committee has a special page for comments on the draft bill.
You may have things you want to say about the draft. We think it would be a good idea to insist that the question of citizenship be clearly addressed. We hear Rep. Velazquez saying briskly, “It’s in the bill,” but we see that the bill is ambiguous. It allows supporters of free association to imply that citizenship will be guaranteed, but it doesn’t actually say that.