In 1901 the U.S. Supreme ruled that the U.S. could govern Puerto Rico without applying the Constitution to the territory or its people. The court’s explanation of its decision was that the treaty under which the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico from Spain did not confer U.S. citizenship or define the political status and civil rights of the people. Instead the treaty left it up to Congress to define the status and rights of the territory and its non-citizen population. The court ruled that the Constitution did not apply because a territory with a non-citizen population and no defined political status was not yet “incorporated” into the United States.
Around the same time, the Supreme Court ruled that Alaska and Hawaii were “incorporated” into the U.S. The treaty under which the U.S. acquired Alaska and the U.S. law annexing Hawaii made the people of those territories U.S. citizens. The court decided that the people of Alaska and Hawaii had the civil rights of U.S. citizens. That meant the Constitution applied in Alaska and Hawaii as it did in other territories that were incorporated and became states.
It might have made sense to give constitutional rights to citizens in one territory but not to non-citizens in another territory. But then Congress granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico in 1917. Yet, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1922 that Congress could continue to govern the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico the same way it governed non-citizens in territories like the Philippines. The court ruled that Puerto Rico remained unincorporated like the Philippines, even though the people of Puerto Rico were citizens, like the people of Alaska and Hawaii. The Court has never explained why citizenship ushered in application of the Constitution, incorporation and eventual statehood for Alaska and Hawaii but not Puerto Rico.
Before the U.S. Congress made the people of Puerto Rico citizens in 1917, the local government in Puerto Rico had petitioned for U.S. citizenship. But in doing so Puerto Rico’s statehood leaders made it clear they expected the territory would become incorporated and eventually become a state. Only the same status and treatment Alaska and Hawaii received would prevent Puerto Rico’s worst fear, which was to be U.S. citizens but still held in a colonial status with less than equal rights, as it had been before the U.S. ended centuries of Spanish colonial rule.
The 1922 ruling denied incorporated status and full citizenship to Puerto Rico. This was a worst case scenario for political thinkers and leaders in Puerto Rico who had understood incorporation leading to statehood was the only path to equality and full post-colonial democracy. The result was that acquiring U.S. citizenship was a cruel fate to Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico, because the people of the territory would have to move to one of the 50 states to have equal political and civil rights defined by our Constitution.
To this day, the U.S. Supreme Court has never justified the 1922 ruling under which Puerto Rico was treated differently from Alaska and Hawaii. Former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh has called that decision “constitutionally flawed.” But Puerto Rico must still live with it today.
This post was originally written in English and may be being auto-translated by Google.