lleana Ros-Lehtinen, a former congresswoman who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee as part of her service, wrote in the Miami Herald that Puerto Rico voters will need to face some facts about free association as a status option. Ros-Lehtinen pointed out that there already are several nations in free association with the United States, and that none of them have U.S. citizenship.

“Our free-association agreements with the nations of Palau and the Marshall Islands, however, do not grant their citizens dual-citizenship rights with the United States. In other words, American citizenship follows the flag,” she wrote. “Puerto Rico’s voters need to know this before they cast a ballot. They need to know that there is no precedent for the United States to give virtually all the citizens of any sovereign nation U.S. citizenship, potentially in perpetuity.”

Is free association independence?

Javier A. Hernández wrote a response to Ros-Lehtinen’s piece. He objected to Ros-Lehtinen’s characterization of free association as a form of independence.

The Department of Justice said “the only constitutionally permissible status options available…are statehood, independence, or Puerto Rico’s current status as a territory.”

They also said, “As has been the Department’s consistent view since 1991, we continue to believe that the Constitution limits Puerto Rico to three constitutional choices: the current territorial status, statehood, or independence…In other words, there is no constitutionally permissible status ‘outside of the Territorial Clause’ other than statehood or independence (including free-association agreements).”

Could the FAS have U.S. citizenship?

He addressed the question of citizenship. “The reason that citizens of the three current associated countries are not U.S. citizens is that they did not want U.S. citizenship—they perferred [sic] their own national citizenship,” he claimed. This is true. The Trust Territory that wanted U.S. citizenship, the Mariana Islands, chose to become a territory of the United States. The residents voted for this in a plebiscite.

However, the claim that the free associated states are not citizens because they didn’t want to be citizens implies that they could have been citizens as free associated states. There is no evidence that this is true. Indeed, the fact that the place that wanted citizenship did not become a free associated state is evidence that citizenship is not part of the free association relationship.

Would Puerto Rico have U.S. citizenship as a FSA?

“While experts and others do know that it is possible and desirable to maintain U.S. citizenship in any sovereignty option, statehooders keep trying to misinform Puerto Ricans and policymakers in Washington,” Hernandez wrote. “With Free Association, Puerto Ricans will be able to maintain their U.S. citizenship and also become Puerto Rican citizens—yes, we can be dual citizens. Puerto Ricans can choose to travel the world on either a U.S. passport or a Puerto Rican one. They would decide, not Ros-Lehtinen.”

These claims are made with no evidence at all to support them. They are just unsupported statements. In fact, Hernandez wrote just a few sentences earlier of U.S. citizenship that “its permanence under a Compact of Free Association between Puerto Rico and the United States must be negotiated.” As it happens, the federal government has already said that permanent U.S. citizenship for a sovereign Puerto Rico is not an option.

You don’t have to take this on faith. Here are just a few examples of statements made by government authorities:

  • The President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico said in 2007 that “it would need to be made clear to the people of Puerto Rico that freely associated status is a form of independence,” and that “independence for the United States could affect the citizenship of Puerto Rico’s residents.”
  • The report also stated that “The general rule is that citizenship follows sovereignty. So if Puerto Rico were to become an independent nation, Puerto Rico’s residents could become citizens of the newly independent nation and cease to be citizens of the United States, unless a different rule were prescribed by legislation or treaty.”
  • The State Department said, “We have concern about the proposal that would legislate dual nationality for residents of Puerto Rico, since it appears to be grounded in the recognition of the conferred citizenship on citizens of another nation, which is incompatible with the notion of sovereignty. “
  • Dick Thornburgh, the former Attorney General, said, “Real free association would be a treaty-based relationship that would end U.S. sovereignty, nationality, and citizenship in Puerto Rico in favor of separate sovereignty, nationality, and citizenship for Puerto Rico.”
  • Also from the State Department, Ambassador Fred Zeder said, “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 based on a vote by the people of Puerto Rico to terminate U.S. sovereignty in Puerto Rico.”

We could go on. Hernandez could not. No official of the federal government has stated that a freely associated nation of Puerto Rico could have permanent U.S. citizenship, nor that its citizens could choose to travel on either a Puerto Rican or a U.S. passport. “They would decide” is a personal statement of faith. Ros-Lehtinen never suggested that she would decide the immigration laws of the United States.

Final agreement

In fact, Ros-Lehtinen never said she is opposed to free association. She is speaking out against the misinformation on the subject of free association that has been presented by its supporters, who often claim that this status option would automatically include permanent U.S. citizenship. She says that voters should be aware of the facts before they vote.

Hernandez seems to be in favor of this himself. He finishes up his screed by saying that “it is essential that Free Association be properly defined and outlined by experts. To ensure this, the president of the United States should establish a working group to appropriately define the status option. It will be impossible for Puerto Ricans to fully exercise their right to self-determination without a full and proper understanding of all three options.”

Ros-Lehtinen finishes her article by saying, “Let’s have this discussion with honesty and integrity. Let’s start by getting the facts right.”

On this point, if not on what constitutes a fact, the two agree.



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