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Can a Puerto Rican Become President Of The United States?

The answer to this broad question is, “maybe yes and maybe no.” As “statutory citizens,” the nearly four million Americans born in Puerto Rico might not be considered “natural born,” a Constitutional requirement to become President of the United States. Let’s look at a few cases!

CASE # 1

Jose Rodriguez, born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, moves with his parents to New Jersey at the age of two. After arriving in their new home, his brother, Manuel, is born. Forty years later, both are prominent politicians and aspire to run for the Presidency. Manuel, as a “natural born” American citizen qualifies. Jose, having been born in Puerto Rico, holds “statutory American citizenship,” deriving from an act of the U.S. Congress in 1917.

QUESTION: Does Jose qualify to be elected President of the United States?

ANSWER: Maybe yes and maybe no!

Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution states “No Person except a “natural born” Citizen, or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of this Constitution shall be eligible to the Office of President; …” Constitutional scholars can point to no definitive case law after 1790, the year of the Constitution’s enactment, establishing the eligibility of Americans with “statutory” citizenship to hold the office of President.

Obviously the Constitution’s framers wished to exclude newly arrived immigrants admitted to citizenship in the newly formed republic, especially their recent enemies. They had just thrown off an English king and did not wish to see a British president. To exclude American citizens born in U.S. territories, however, is considered by most Constitutional scholars to be a stretch.

CASE # 2

Sgt. Robert Douglas and his wife Wendy, both “natural born” American citizens, give birth to a daughter, Jennifer, while stationed at Ft. Buchanan in Puerto Rico. Five months after the girl’s birth, the family rotates back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where Jennifer grows up. Forty years later, she aspires to become the third female President of the United States.

QUESTION: Is Jennifer a “natural born” American citizen and therefore eligible to be elected to the highest office in the land, even though she was born on the island of Puerto Rico?

ANSWER: Maybe yes and maybe no!

Amendment XIV, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution states “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Even though Jennifer was born in Puerto Rico, her parents were not “resident” there. Usually members of the U.S. military retain residency in their “home of record,” in the case of the Douglas family, Kansas. However, even if she was to be considered “Puerto Rican born” her citizenship would probably not be considered “statutory.”

Before the passage of the Panama Canal Treaties in 1977, the Panama Canal Zone had been a U.S. possession, with some families of “natural born” American citizens permanently residing there for generations. In order to protect the “natural born,” status of anyone born in the Zone to at least one citizen-parent, Congress passed 8 USC 1403. Experts cite other legislation providing the same “protection” to the offspring of “natural born” American citizens in the U.S. territories.

CASE # 3

The year is 2024. Puerto Rico has become a state of the Union. Its senior Member in the U.S. Senate, Pablo Aponte, a native of Arecibo, enters the race for the Presidency. One of his opponents makes a campaign issue of the fact that Sen. Aponte is not qualified to become President, since he is not a “natural born” American citizen.

QUESTION: Is Sen. Aponte’s opponent correct?

ANSWER: Maybe yes and maybe no!

No one seems clear on this issue. The Congressional offices of Hawaii and Alaska, both former U.S. territories turned states, have no definitive answer and, as yet, no one from those new states has made a run for the Presidency. In 1964 the late Sen. Barry Goldwater accepted the nomination of the Republican Party to run against incumbent President Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater was born near Phoenix in 1909, three years before the Arizona territory was admitted to statehood. The nature of his citizenship was never raised seriously as an issue and, had he won the election, all assume that he would have been seated.

Perhaps Sen. Aponte would enjoy the same consideration.

Interest in this question was raised in 2003 when the New York Times published an editorial in favor of efforts by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Congressman Vic Snyder (D-AR) to rid the Constitution of the requirement that only “natural born” citizens be eligible to be seated as President of the United States.

The editorial points out that, since the writing of the Constitution, the U.S. has become a nation of immigrants, with some living in residence for decades. These individuals, by their loyalty and contributions to the nation, clearly deserve to be considered eligible to become President, including some 700 immigrants whose valor in combat warranted the bestowal of the nation’s highest citation, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Mr. Hatch’s amendment would make anyone who has been a citizen for 20 years, and a resident for 14, eligible for the presidency, while Mr. Snyder’s would require a 35-year waiting period.

The Hatch-Snyder amendment makes no mention of Presidential eligibility for the many Americans whose citizenship is “statutory,” and maybe it should. The loyalty and contribution to the nation of most Puerto Ricans is unassailable. Four “statutory” American citizens from Puerto Rico were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor while fighting in the nation’s wars. Puerto Ricans such as Dr. Antonia Novello from Fajardo could be the nation’s Surgeon General but she might not be eligible for the Presidency. Orlando Figueroa, from Mayaguez, can run NASA’s Mars program but might not qualify to sit behind the President’s desk.

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