There are only two real options for Puerto Rico, if the people of Puerto Rico do not want to continue as a territory. The passage of HR8393, the Puerto Rico Status Act, called for a non-territorial permanent political status, so that question should be considered settled. One possible option is statehood: joining the Union as the 51st state. The other is independence, with or without a treaty alliance known as free association, which either party can end in favor of unallied independence for Puerto Rico.
There are hundreds of large and small independent nations in the world, and there are three in free association with the United States:
- Federated States of Micronesia (FSM)
- The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI)
- The Republic of Palau
The residents of these nations never were and never will be citizens of the United States. That would be incompatible with the right of each island nation as well as the U.S. to end the alliance in favor of independence. Also, while U.S. law allows dual citizenship to exist, the U.S. has never recognized or created dual citizenship for its citizens by operation of U.S. laws. If Puerto Rico becomes a sovereign nation, acquisition of U.S. citizenship based on birth there will end, U.S. citizenship acquired by birth in the territory will not be passed to children born in Puerto Rico, and if Congress follows historic precedent a choice will be offered to those born in the territory between either Puerto Rican citizenship or U.S. citizenship, but not both.
We often hear that Puerto Rico won’t accept statehood because of the possibility of losing the Miss Universe competition (which may or may not be the case). Will Puerto Rico accept independence when it means losing U.S. citizenship?
Right now, Puerto Ricans can travel freely between Puerto Rico and all 50 states. Nationhood with a treaty of free association might allow visa waivers for travel, at least for a transition period. Independence could include a treaty allowing free travel. But with more people of Puerto Rican heritage living on the mainland than on the Island, problems of family separation could arise for Puerto Ricans.
Free association treaties with visa waivers for travel do not prevent exclusion or deportation from the U.S. for reasons such as crimes, threats to public health, or economic distress resulting in the need for public assistance. Independence will undoubtedly allow both Puerto Rico and the United States to determine their own laws regarding immigration and citizenship.
It is also possible that U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico who live in the states could have a different choice for citizenship from those who live in Puerto Rico.
None of these questions can be settled before a referendum or before Puerto Rico becomes a freely associated republic or an independent nation. Treaties would be negotiated and can be changed over time. The Philippines had agreements with the U.S. before they became independent, and the details of those agreements changed after independence. The current compacts of free association expire in the next year or two and have not yet been renegotiated. Free association always includes chances of change.
U.S. citizenship is only secure under statehood.
Patriotic U.S. citizens
The people of Puerto Rico have demonstrated in so many ways that they are patriotic U.S. citizens. It might be emotionally difficult for many individuals to lose that citizenship. The PuertoRicoUSA website has collected a number of quotes from political leaders past and present demonstrating this:
- Luis Muñoz Rivera, May 5, 1916: “My country unanimously requested U.S. citizenship many times. It requested it under the promises of General Miles when he disembarked in Ponce. Give us statehood and we would welcome your glorious citizenship for us and our children.”
- Luis Muñoz Marin, July 17, 1951, Barranquitas: “What we have to guard against in this world we live in is not to confuse love for our patria (pueblo) with small, futile and naive concepts of nationalionalism and national state.”
- Luis Muñoz Marin, July 25, 1967, on the July 25th celebration: “There should be no doubt about our dedication to permanent union and our purpose of enriching the meaning of American citizenship, not only for Puerto Rico, but to all our fellow citizens of the United States, for their prestige in America and in the World.”
- Anibal Acevedo Vila, June 23, 1998: U. S. Senate, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Hearings on sovereignty under S. 472: “We should not be forced to give up our children’s U.S. citizenship so that we can get a fuller measure of self-government.”
- Sila Maria Calderon, Caribbean Business, December 3, 1998:
“I have never felt like a second-class citizen. I consider myself a U.S. citizen. I appreciate and treasure my U.S. citizenship. I would never renounce or consider losing that citizenship. I want my children and their children to always have it.”
- Rafael Herandez Colón, 1998, “The Nation, Century to Century”: “Who are we and where are we going? We are pure and irrevocably Puerto Rican, a nation with a defined culture we’re not North Americans, although we are U.S. citizens and we’re proud to be.”
- Sila Maria Calderon, Caribbean Business, December 3, 1998: “The people from Puerto Rico already decided they want to be permanently linked to the United States. There’s nothing else to be said about that matter.”
In fact, PuertoRicoUSA draws this conclusion about citizenship:
“At the present time both the statehood and commonwealth parties include definite, irrevocable American citizenship in their own platforms and status definitions. Both groups account for an overwhelming majority, nearly 96% of all voters (As per 1993 plebiscite). Some advocates for independence favor the retaining of both Puerto Rican and American citizenship. With this in view we can state that a totality of Puerto Rico voters would favor continuing our American citizenship.”
As citizens of the United States living in the State of Puerto Rico, the people of Puerto Rico will be Puerto Ricans, just as U.S. citizens of the State of Texas will always be Texans and those of California will always be Californians. This is the nature of the United States: we are citizens of our states and of our nation. Puerto Rico can have this through statehood, but not through independence.
This quote makes the most important point of all, which is that the full rights of U.S. citizenship can be achieved only for citizens who reside in a state. U.S. citizens in territories can acquire and enjoy more rights than residents of tiny territories like American Samoa who are still “nationals,” the same subjected status Puerto Ricans had under the Foraker Act from 1900 to 1917 when statutory citizenship was granted. But full rights of citizenship including consent of the governed and full constitutionally conferred U.S. citizenship is not possible without statehood.
One more historical quote from PuertoRicoUSA seems particularly fitting for our current situation:
“It is only fitting that a Republican Congress should give the people of Puerto Rico what so many Republican presidents sought to achieve – a way to determine for themselves the government they should have.” –Ralph Reed
Once independent, it is very unlikely that Puerto Rico will ever be allowed to return to territory status or be admitted as a state. Only one out of 50 states was admitted as a republic: Texas.
Puerto Ricans who do not choose statehood from the non-territorial status options should be prepared for the loss of their U.S. citizenship. They should expect not to be able to pass that citizenship to their children. Who will be willing to accept that?