Puerto Rico’s Stalled Economy

On June 24 the U.S. House of Representatives committee with jurisdiction over federal territories held a hearing on the political status and economic condition of Puerto Rico. As expected, there also was discussion of the American Samoan citizenship case in which courts confirmed that only residents of the states have full and equal rights under the Constitution.

While the Congressional hearing remained focused on Puerto Rico’s status and economy, non-voting members of the House of Representatives from the four other territories took turns aligning themselves with the agenda of grievances about the denial of rights and opportunity for territories. Though these territorial representatives don’t vote in Congress to make laws, they do their best to influence Congress to recognize and address the national interest as it relates to the territories.

The witness list adopted by the Congressional committee leadership led off with strong testimony by pro-statehood leaders from Puerto Rico, including former Governors and territorial Congressmen Luis Fortuno and Carlos Romero Barcelo. The prevailing theme of testimony emphasized that in the history of territorial integration the current political and economic limbo status for Puerto Rico is unprecedented, and creates risk of a failed client state scenario due to the faltering economy under territorial status.

The current Governor from the party that favors the present status was a no-show, represented by his Attorney General, who made a very weak argument that status was not a timely issue because there was no consensus on that issue. Of course, in America normally we govern by majority rule not consensus, but given the majority vote for statehood in 2012 perhaps the Attorney General decided hiding behind the anti-democratic demand for consensus was a better theme.

The other witness defending the status quo was a former Governor and non-voting Congressional representative of the territory, Anibal Acevedo Vila. He made the lame argument that Puerto Rico’s economy is in decline because it is a developing nation economy that cannot be integrated into the U.S., the most developed nation economy. Since all 32 developing territories that became states achieved sustained growth and integration through statehood, that mind-bendingly self-defeating argument by Acevedo Vila is the most revealing proof imaginable that the current status is producing stagnation and statehood will bring recovery and prosperity.

As compelling as the testimony on Puerto Rico was during the hearing, the brief exchange between the Congresswoman from America Samoa and former Puerto Rico Governor Fortuño deserves more attention than its lack of prominence in the hearing itself might suggest. By explaining the outcome of the American Samoa citizenship lawsuit, Congresswoman Amata Coleman Radewagen ran something in the nature of a tutorial on the implications for the federal court’s dismissal of the appeal in that case for all five territories seeking to define political status options.

American Samoa is the only territory where local residents still have the status of “U.S. nationals” that applied to non-citizen peoples in U.S. territories classified as “unincorporated” under the federal court territorial law rulings known as the Insular Cases. In contrast, U.S. nationals in the other 4 territories classified as “unincorporated” have been granted “U.S. citizenship” under federal statutes organizing local territorial governments. It was in that context that the Delegate from American Samoa summarized the outcome of the case in terms that paradoxically both complex but plain spoken in a way non-lawyers can understand:

“A federal court of appeals just rejected the argument lawyers made in a case claiming the national citizenship clause in the Constitution applies in American Samoa and all other unincorporated US territories. So once again the courts have confirmed that US nationals in American Samoa and US citizens from Puerto Rico and the other three unincorporated territories are required to relocate to a state of the union to secure full and equal rights and duties of US citizenship. That means full and equal rights of national citizenship, including the fundamental right of government by consent through voting rights in federal elections, are guaranteed only through citizenship in a state rather than a territory. So for residents of all five unincorporated territories who don’t move to a state, the status of a US national in American Samoa and a US citizen in a territory is constitutionally the same, with only those rights under the Constitution and federal law confirmed by Congress in federal statutes enacted under the territorial power.”

The profoundly disconcerting ramifications of this astute analysis were not lost on anyone in the hearing room. The obvious meaning bears repetition: The conferral of “citizenship” does not change the rights and status of people in the territory from what it was under earlier federal territorial law classifying the people of unincorporated territories as “nationals.” Only when territorial residents leave the territory and come reside in a state, acquiring state citizenship, do rights of citizenship become equal to those of state citizens. Even then, the only difference between territorial “citizens” and “nationals” is that the latter must apply to be citizens and reside in a state to attain equality, whereas as citizens need only reside in a state to have full rights.

The unmistakable message arising from this discussion in the hearing is that government by consent through voting rights in federal elections is the most fundamental right of all citizenship rights. That is why the national citizenship clause of the Constitution added by the 14th Amendment appears in tandem with the state citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment. It means full and equal rights of national citizenship and the very meaning of national citizenship do not exist except through the exercise of the rights of state citizenship.

PR51st offers a primer on American Samoa nationality status for readers who would like a more in-depth analysis of that topic.

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