The Puerto Rico Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has produced a memorandum on “The Insular Cases and the Doctrine of the Unincorporated Territory and its Effects on the Civil Rights of the Residents of Puerto Rico.” This is their first report on the first of a series of hearings being held with expert panelists, including George H. Laws García, director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council.

The Committee looked at three elements of Puerto Rico’s experience:

  • voting rights and lack of political representation
  • racial and national discrimination
  • access to federal public programs.

The Insular Cases

The Insular Cases are a series of Supreme Court decisions from the 20th century which have ongoing repercussions for the people living in U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico. These cases invented the “unincorporated territory” status and declared that the U.S. Constitution does not fully protect unincorporated territories or their inhabitants.

What Are the Insular Cases?

It is generally agreed that the decisions in the Insular Cases show racist attitudes that are not acceptable in the modern world.

A colonial relationship

The first of the Committee’s preliminary findings is that the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico is a colonial one. “[T]he United States is based on the idea that the government derives power from those it governs as part of a social contract, and because of this, it has been a global example of democracy,” the Committee reported. “However, these ideals have not materialized in the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico.”

They went on to say that “Panelist George H. Laws García, director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, commented that ‘unfortunately for 125 of those years, the United States government has not fulfilled the promise of government by consent in Puerto Rico, denying the residents of the island the right to vote at the federal level'” leading to “systematic discrimination against the residents of the island as the indefinite perpetuation of a system of government where there is a clear democratic deficit that directly contradicts the fundamental principles of the American democratic system.”

The Committee sees a connection between the Insular Cases and this colonial relationship, saying, “The non-incorporation doctrine treats residents of the territory as ‘less than’ and has been used as an excuse for the continuation of colonial status for quite some time, indicating that it is one of the main obstacles to achieving decolonization.”


The second finding is that Puerto Rico is treated unequally by the federal government. “The fact that Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory has left the island in a state of limbo,” the report states, “and this has been an excuse that the United States Congress has used to not address civil rights or the political status of Puerto Rico in full.”

Panelists at the hearing mentioned a number of examples of discrimination, ranging from the PROMESA Oversight Board’s ability to influence local laws to the Supreme Court decision allowing Congress to refuse benefits to residents of Puerto Rico.

A number of individuals shared their personal stories of how they had been affected by lack of access to federal benefits available to residents of states, but not of Puerto Rico. This information was summarized under several headings within the list of preliminary findings, with particular attention to veterans, people with disabilities, children, and other specific groups.

The Supreme Court

The Committee also reported that the panelists at the hearing agreed that “the Supreme Court is not the ideal vehicle through which to solve the problems caused by the Non-Incorporation Doctrine.”

Pointing out the Congress, not the courts, has plenary power over Puerto Rico, the panelists noted that the Supreme Court has not handed down a decision on the citizenship of people born in Puerto Rico. Panelist José Julián Álvarez González, Professor at the School of Law at the University of Puerto Rico, pointed out that the United States citizenship of those born in Puerto Rico comes from the laws that have granted it and not from the 14th Amendment too the Constitution. Various panelists noted that statutory citizenship of this kind is not fully protected under the Constitution.

“According to several panelists,” the Committee reported, “Puerto Rico will only emerge from the limitations it currently faces with the Insular Cases through a political process, and not a judicial one, since the courts have continually refused to resolve this problem.”


Panelists informed the Committee that one of the consequences of the discrimination experienced in Puerto Rico has been mass migration to the states. “This means that the discrimination and inequality institutionalized by the Insular Cases are separating families and destroying communities on the island,” Laws García explained, stating that Puerto Rico has seen a drop of 11% in population.

The dwindling population further reduces the tax base and the federal funds received by the Island. “Migration to the states reflects the urgent need to resolve the inequities faced by the residents of Puerto Rico, who seek the same opportunities to improve their quality of life as any other citizen,” the Committee concluded.


While some panelists favored treating the colonial relationship within the framework of international law, Mr. Laws García said, “For Puerto Rico to have an opportunity to definitively address its civil rights and the civil rights of American citizens in Puerto Rico, Congress must pass legislation to offer Puerto Rico the opportunity to decide between options that are not territorial. That would be the most important recommendation I think this Committee can make for the Commission.”

Resident Commissioner Rệp. Jenniffer González Colón made the point that revoking the Insular Cases would not solve the problems identified in the hearing, since those problems are based on the political status of the Island. “Only achieving a non-territorial status – either Statehood or Nationhood – can do that [resolving inequalities in Puerto Rico]; and only the U.S. Congress – not the courts – can achieve that.”

The report concluded with the observation that “although there are three non-territorial options for Puerto Rico – statehood, independence, and free association –statehood is the only one that offers equal treatment and the right to vote.”

The Committee decided to consider a declaration “that the Insular Cases are a form of discrimination against the civil rights of the residents of Puerto Rico.”



2 Responses

  1. Great work by George Law and the PR-51st Team!
    The Federal Government should be the Servant of all “We the People”; not the Master of some (Puerto Ricans)!
    Best Option: PR Equality and Progress with STATEHOOD!

    • The panel should address how congress enforcement of their plenary powers deny puertorican citizens equal protection on under the law by circumventing their rights and utilizing a rational basis analysis to justify such treatment their are thousands of puertorican that have been incarcerated by laws that are met to treat them like less than equal if they should not just overturn such application since is ilegal

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