Promises broken – Promises kept
What do U.S. citizens living lawfully in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico have in common with undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. unlawfully? One of many answers is that both have seen promises made to them by Washington broken. As a presidential candidate, then Senator Obama went to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico to campaign in its primary and win support of the island’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention in 2008. Obama promised nearly 4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico he would work with Congress to reform federal laws to define the legal status of the island, as well as the rights and duties of citizens in that U.S. island territory. In that same 2008 campaign Obama also made essentially the same promise to work with Congress and reform federal law to define more clearly and reliably the status, rights and duties of millions of foreign citizens who entered the U.S. unlawfully. Millions of Hispanic voters believed him and helped elect him President. In both cases he promised to deliver in his first term. In both cases he failed. There have been changes this year. Although it came late in his second term, President Obama finally delivered on his promise to U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. He did not take unilateral executive action out of frustration with the U.S. House of Representatives for disagreeing with him and the U.S. Senate. Instead, the Obama Administration worked in an intellectually honest way with Congress to find a sustainable bipartisan path forward for Puerto Rico. The result was a provision in the budget for the first federally-sponsored plebiscite, designed to resolve the political status and citizenship rights of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico. Thus, in January of 2014, without a great deal of either fanfare or controversy, a Democrat controlled White House and Senate quietly reached agreement with a Republican controlled House of Representatives to pass a federal law sponsoring a political status referendum in Puerto Rico. This will allow the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico to undertake a democratic process of self-determination and provide Congress with the legal and political basis to end the island’s current act status as a federal reservation with limited citizenship rights. For the first time in its history under U.S. rule, the stage is now set for voters in Puerto Rico to choose statehood on terms acceptable to Congress. In contrast, on November 20 President Obama announced a very limited program to exempt selectively from deportation some foreign citizens who have been allowed to live and make a life in the USA. At best this is a promise kept so imperfectly it makes a mockery of the hope created by the original promise. It now seems almost sadly unkind that Obama deliberately created a high level of anticipation about a major immigration policy shift addressing the status of foreign citizens living in the U.S. without a legal status. Instead of delivering on any great expectations, however, once again Hispanics had to take what they could get from Obama’s White House on their “immigration reform” agenda. Too little too late for “immigration reform” Instead of genuine celebration after Obama’s speech on migrant status, most Hispanics sympathetic with the abstract idea of “immigration reform” listened skeptically to the rationalizations and excuses for slim gains that came from Obama and his surrogates. Principal among the apologists for Obama’s disappointing performance was Congressman Luis Gutierrez, whose defense of Obama’s weak but still highly controversial gesture was uninspired and lame. Our President went on national television and talked a lot about families and immigrant heritage, as well as the patriotism of migrants who owe no duty and give no sign of allegiance to our nation. But when all the smoke cleared, Obama essentially announced historically modest executive administrative policies that give scant relief or real hope to migrants with any understanding of our laws. Obama’s “reforms” simply recognize it’s not the most effective and efficient use of federal resources to deport up to somewhere around 4 million mostly law-abiding non-citizens. Most of the people eligible for the exemption may not even try to meet the requirements, for fear that doing so could increase risk of deportation under existing law. At best, Obama’s executive action keeps “immigration reform” in the news, but it is a setback for bipartisan cooperation in seeking real solutions for the U.S. and its undocumented immigrants. As such, Obama’s strategy of refusing to seek a viable compromise with a politically divided Congress at least for now has proven discouraging for the national Hispanic political agenda.
Puerto Rico as a Hispanic rights success story
Compare the dramatic theatrics of the November 20 roll out for a bare bones policy change to what happened when Congress and the President agreed to a law offering statehood to Puerto Rico subject to final terms acceptable to Congress. In January of 2014 there was no presidential address to the nation and we heard barely any mention in the national media when the President and Congress reached an historic bipartisan breakthrough on the political status of nearly 4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. In that largely unheralded act, large majorities in both Houses of a politically divided Congress passed and the President signed a new federal law authorizing a federally sponsored political status referendum in Puerto Rico. This federal referendum was the eventual response to a 2012 referendum in which 54% of voters casting ballots rejected continuation of the current “commonwealth” form of territorial government, and 61% of voters on a second ballot question chose statehood over separate nationhood. It was clear, and the White House acknowledged, that Puerto Rico was being governed without the consent of the governed. The government must now take action. They’ve decided to do so by confirming the 2012 majority vote for statehood. The new federal statutory law on Puerto Rico’s status will remain in effect until the vote is conducted on status options certified as legally valid by the U.S. Attorney General. If a clear majority of voters confirms the 2012 demand for statehood, Congress either will reject democratic self-determination by millions of U.S. citizens, or adopt an enabling act. An enabling act is a law defining the political, legal and economic terms for Puerto Rico’s admission to the Union. That will end 90 years of denial in Puerto Rico of equal rights and duties of U.S. citizens in our nation’s last large and populous island territory. In addition to 3.7 million U.S citizens from Puerto Rico who reside there now, statehood would allow over 4 million Puerto Ricans who for decades had to come to the mainland for equal rights and opportunities to go back if they choose, without losing their full and equal rights of citizenship. The same will be true of all U.S. citizens who want to live and invest capital or creative enterprise in Puerto Rico’s economy and way of life, not just pass through on a vacation. Statehood for Puerto Rico will actually resolve the political status and rights in their homeland of 8 million U.S. citizens with roots in Puerto Rico living throughout the 50 states.
Ending disenfranchisement for 4 million Hispanic citizens
A statehood enabling act for Puerto Rico will create a path to full and equal rights and duties of U.S. citizenship. Unlike Puerto Rico’s current status, which can be changed by Congress at an time, statehood is defined as permanent under state and federal constitutions. Once statehood is achieved, U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico will be on equal footing with the rest of the nation. That will end the current less-than-democratic status in which Puerto Ricans have had U.S. citizenship since 1917, but must move from the island territory to a State of the Union to have equal rights of citizenship. Again, that is why in addition to the 61% who voted for statehood in the 2012 status referendum, since citizenship was granted over 4 million U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico have “voted for statehood” by coming to live in the mainland as residents of a state. By so doing our fellow citizens have taken destiny into their own hands, and by living in a state they have ended denial of voting rights in federal elections and voting representation in Congress. Statehood is the only option that can guarantee due process rights, equal protection of the law, and the equal economic opportunity we enjoy in every State integrated into the national economy.
Uncommon problems and uncommon solutions
Ironically, living in a federal territorial reservation like Puerto Rico, U.S. citizens have something else in common with undocumented non-citizen residents. Both citizens in a territory and unlawful migrants live under U.S. sovereignty and the supremacy of federal law, but have a temporary rather than permanent legal and political status, and as such are unable to participate in the political process by which citizens in the 50 states give or withhold consent to the federal laws under which they live. Unlawful immigrants chose to be disenfranchised by coming here unlawfully. U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico have never been given a choice other than territorial status and disenfranchisement. This remains true for U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, and for all unlawful immigrants, including those who participate in Obama’s deportation exemption program. At least citizens in Puerto Rico have many rights and benefits based on citizenship to which they are justly entitled. Unlawful immigrants who register for exemption for deportation will remain a subordinate political underclass, without a path to equal rights or even access to the federal social safety net. Since undocumented immigrants remain subject to the sovereignty of the U.S. within its borders and the supremacy of federal law, they exist in a condition of political, social and economic servitude. In that context, the President’s new immigrant policy is for immigrants in the current legal system like a medical triage protocol in a public health emergency, enabling those with the power to decide the fate of others to identify less severe and urgent cases that can be given lower priority. Foreign non-citizens at present are “undocumented” by the federal government because they entered and remain in the U.S. unlawfully. It is not clear if being “documented” by federal immigration enforcement authorities under the President’s provisional administrative instructions, without acquiring any binding legal rights or protections, actually improves the legal status of non-citizens who remain deportable under federal law. The President claimed his executive order would enable those without legal status to “get right with the law.” But participation in this temporary program only gets border violating immigrants “right” with President Obama and federal agents acting under his direction, and only as long as his deportation exemption remains in force. After that, the federal government will be free to use the documentation of non-citizens under the Obama deportation exemption program to detain for removal and exclusion any participant in the program. Thus, it remains true that the most important difference in the legal and political status of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and undocumented border violators is that under the U.S. Constitution and federal law applicable to Puerto Rico the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico have U.S. nationality and cannot be deported. That is because under law citizens in Puerto Rico owe a duty of allegiance to the United States. So it was not accurate when the President simplistically stated that border violators have the “same patriotism” as all U.S. citizens. That was a cavalier treatment of a very serious issue for all concerned. As a former constitutional law professor, Obama should know that the allegiance of a non-citizens in our nation unlawfully is unknown morally and undefined legally until the non-citizen is naturalized as a U.S. citizen under federal laws enacted pursuant to the Uniform Law of Naturalization Clause in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. It cannot be assumed that those who will not be deported under the President’s executive order have or ever will have allegiance to the USA. For those Hispanics with historical perspective, it is clear the 2014 Puerto Rico status measure that became federal law offer more hope of empowerment and equal rights for Latino peoples in America than the deportation policy announced by Obama on November 20, 2014.
This post was originally written in English and may be being auto-translated by Google.