In 2000, President Bill Clinton established the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status. The Task Force would ultimately go on to release three reports, issued during the terms of President George W. Bush and President Barrack Obama – a Republican and a Democrat. Each report contemplates the fate of U.S. citizenship in Puerto Rico if the U.S. territory were to become a new nation. One report expresses a desire for continued U.S. citizenship in the new country, but none guarantee it. Let’s examine the reports below.
The 2005 Report
The first Report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, released during the administration of President George W. Bush, had this to say about U.S. citizenship in a newly sovereign country of Puerto Rico:
“Any planning for Puerto Rican independence would need to consider citizenship. Individuals born in Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States by statute (rather than by being born or naturalized in the United States). The general rule is that citizenship follows sovereignty. So if Puerto Rico were to become an independent sovereign nation, those who chose to become citizens of it or had U.S. citizenship only by statute would cease to be citizens of the United States, unless a different rule were prescribed by legislation or treaty, much as citizens of the Philippines lost their status as U.S. nationals once the Philippines became independent.”
The 2007 Report
In 2007, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status released a second report that examined the options available for Puerto Rico’s future status. Also issued under the George W. Bush administration, the second report reached a similar conclusion to the previous report, almost verbatim:
“Individuals born in Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States by statute, 8 U.S.C. § 1402. The general rule is that citizenship follows sovereignty. So if Puerto Rico were to become an independent nation, Puerto Rico’s residents could become citizens of the newly independent nation and cease to be citizens of the united States, unless a different rule were prescribed by legislation or treaty.”
The 2007 report included a legal memorandum from Assistant U.S. Attorney General Robert Rabin to Chairman Frank Murkowski of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that added detail to the picture. The memo recognized that former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh (1988-1991) had testified before Congress that if Puerto Rico were to become independent, “its residents ‘should be required to elect between retaining United States citizenship (and ultimately taking up residence with the United States…)’ and citizenship in the new republic of Puerto Rico.” The memo also explicitly suggested, however, that it may be possible to retain the current U.S. citizenship status of Puerto Rican-born individuals through a new U.S. law or treaty – assuming such a law or treaty could be passed.
In a nutshell, the loss of U.S. citizenship would not be automatic, but U.S. citizenship would not be protected either, especially for future generations. As the memo notes, “If Puerto Rico is to become an independent nation, then, while Congress may well have the power to provide…that persons born in Puerto Rico in the future shall acquire United States citizenship, we think Congress could also change that rule and provide that, in the future, birth in Puerto Rico shall no longer be a basis for United States citizenship.”
The 2011 Report
In 2011, the Task Force released a third report on the status of Puerto Rico. Unlike in 2007, this report did not investigate the legal aspects of citizenship in a new nation of Puerto Rico. There was no input from the Department of Justice or Department of State on the topic. The 2011 report, in fact, refused to engage in any legal analysis, stating instead that “whatever the answer to the legal question, current U.S. citizens should not be stripped of their citizenship even if the people of Puerto Rico vote for Independence.” Accordingly, the Task Force recommended that “the President and Congress commit to preserving U.S. citizenship for Puerto Rican residents at the time of any transition to Independence.”
The report did not contain any ideas on how U.S. citizenship would or could be protected if the President and Congress were to adhere to this commitment as Puerto Rico became a new country. Instead, it struck a more aspirational tone, lacking in legal justification or policy analysis and recognizing the political reality that “[a]ny status option that could conceivably result in the loss of U.S. citizenship by current U.S. citizen residents of Puerto Rico would, it seems, be viewed with hostility by the vast majority of Puerto Ricans.”