Bonae Vasquez has lived in the United States since she was six years old. She has just achieved American citizenship, at nearly 30 years of age. The unusual thing about Bonae Vasquez is that she was a citizen of the Marshall Islands, one of the three nations which have a Compact of Free Association with the United States.
People from the Freely Associated States, including the Marshall Islands, are not U.S. citizens by birth. They are allowed to live, work, and go to school freely in the United States without a visa. Yet they travel on a Marshallese passport. They are not considered immigrants when they live in the U.S., and are instead called “legal nonimmigrants.”
People from the Marshall Islands are not automatically allowed to come to the United States. They can be refused admittance if, for example, they want to enter the United States in order to place a child for adoption.
There are limits on their eligibility for federal financial assistance once they arrive, and they put up with significant administrative hassles, despite the fact that Marshallese serve in the armed forces in numbers higher than in the fifty states based on the nation’s population of 40,000. Regardless of these challenges, once admitted, they may stay in the U.S. as long as they like.
The Compact of Free Association (COFA) between the Marshall Islands and the United States is up for renewal in 2023, and there is some concern that the Marshall Islands may not choose to renew out of frustration with the U.S. not recognizing the lingering radiation from the U.S. nuclear legacy there and other reasons. This would put the 27,000 Marshallese people living in the United States — about one third of the population — in an uncertain position.
Vasquez had good reason to feel that she needed to become a U.S. citizen to continue her life in the United States.
Marrying a citizen
Bonae Vasquez married a U.S. citizen when she was 24. She applied for and received a green card, which is proof of Resident Alien status. A resident alien may live in the United States indefinitely, but does not have the privileges of citizenship. They cannot vote, for example.
Normally, a resident alien must live in the United States for five years before applying for citizenship. As the spouse of an active service member, however, Bonae Vasquez was able to apply for citizenship after just three years.
Applying for citizenship requires quite a bit of paperwork and in-person interviews which may require travel to a larger city. The filing fee is $750 as of this writing, and some applicants need legal assistance with the process. Fees are not refunded if the applicant is not accepted. Reading, writing, and civics exams are also required.
Vasquez was able to gain citizenship in less than a year after filing, but it can take years to get through the process.
How does this affect Puerto Rico?
Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. Since 1917, everyone born in Puerto Rico is automatically a citizen of the United States by birth.
If Puerto Rico were to choose to create its own sovereignty, which has never yet happened in any of the six plebiscites that have taken place in Puerto Rico, the new nation of Puerto Rico could negotiate a Compact of Free Association with the United States. This would be a treaty between two sovereign nations, and neither side could insist on any terms. Either side could change or end the COFA at any time.
The federal government has said repeatedly that Puerto Rico could not expect U.S. citizenship to be part of a COFA.
Anyone from a Free Associated State of Puerto Rico would need to go through the naturalization process just as Vasquez did.
Read more about Bonae Vasquez’s journey here.