One of the most important issues regarding Puerto Rico’s status is the question of U.S. citizenship.
Dennis Freytes wrote, “Please, clarify/qualify that most ‘statutory’ US Citizens born in the US Territory of Puerto have a non-permanent US Citizenship, even if they move to a State, because the basis or authority comes from the Territorial Clause, not the 14th Amendment. Also, PR 51st should understand that you are mentioning Laws and Codes that can be amended or revoked by the US Congress; and will not be imposed on an Independent Nation.”
In the same conversation, Jose Manuel Vega Roque wrote, “Those already born there retain it.”
What’s the truth?
Statutory vs. constitutional citizenship
The 1917 Jones Shafroth Act gave U.S. citizenship to people born in Puerto Rico by an act of Congress. Congress can take that citizenship away again. It is not guaranteed under the 14th amendment, which is the source of citizenship for people born in states.
Congress does not have to take away this citizenship, but many statements from all three branches of the federal government have made it clear that it can be done. People born in Puerto Rico and living in a state could, under the law, be required to choose between remaining citizens of the United States or becoming citizens of a new nation of Puerto Rico.
In fact, if Puerto Rico were to vote for independence, Congress could take that as evidence that the people of Puerto Rico do not want to be part of the United States and rescind U.S. citizenship for everyone born in Puerto Rico. It was given by an act of Congress, and it could be taken away by an act of Congress.
Congress can change laws
Con guess has the right to change laws previously passed. Congress can revoke those laws. Congress can’;t easily change the U.S. Constitution, but the Supreme Court has already said that the U.S. Constitution does not apply fully to an unincorporated territory like Puerto Rico. Congress changes and revokes laws all the time. Since Puerto Ricans’ U.S. citizenship is not based on the Constitution but on the Jones-Shafroth Act, it could be changed or revoked at any time by Congress.
This is not a scare tactic, as some anti-statehood factions have suggested. It is important for anyone who will be voting on Puerto Rico’s status to understand that it is a legal possibility. We might think that Congress just wouldn’t do that, but that is a sentimental belief. Rep. Nydia Velazquez said that guaranteed citizenship is “the bare minimum” that the U.S. should do for Puerto Rico, but that is an opinion. Under the law, Congress can repeal the Jones-Shafroth Act or any part of it at any time. Imagining that Congress will give permanent citizenship to Puerto Rico after Puerto Rico rejects permanent union with the U.S. is a fantasy.
Does U.S. Citizenship matter?
Not everyone wants U.S. citizenship. Those who want independence from the United States might prefer to be citizens of Puerto Rico and not of the United States. They can vote for independence, with or without a Compact of Free Association, without feeling concerned about their citizenship.
However, many Puerto Ricans cherish their U.S. citizenship. They want to keep that citizenship. They may want to keep their Social Security, Medicaid, and veteran’s benefits. They want to be able to travel and work freely in the United States.
These people need to understand — before they vote in a binding status referendum — that U.S. citizenship is only guaranteed under statehood.