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Can Stateside Puerto Ricans Keep U.S. Citizenship under Independence?

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Can stateside Puerto Ricans keep their U.S. citizenship if Puerto Rico were to become independent?  Perhaps, but maybe not.  Regardless, Supreme Court precedent won’t help protect Puerto Rico-born US residents.  The case of Rabang v. Boyd makes this clear.

Henry Ragonton Rabang was born in the Philippines in 1910, when the Philippines was a territory of the United States. He was a U.S. national by birth and came to the U.S. in 1930.  He was admitted as a permanent resident due to his U.S. national status. In 1951, Robing was convicted of a narcotics crime. Under the law, “any alien” convicted of a crime of this type could be deported. Rabang was sentenced to deportation.

Rabang argued that he could not be considered an “alien” since he entered the country as a U.S. national. He urged that “his status as a national, acquired at birth … bears such close relationship to the constitutionally secured birthright of citizenship acquired by the American-born” that he should remain a U.S. national, keeping his special privileges to stay in the U.S. as a permanent resident.

The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court instead recognized that when the Philippines transitioned to independence in 1947, Rabang’s relationship with the United States changed, noting explicitly that when “Congress granted full and complete independence to the Islands” the U.S. “necessarily severed the obligation of permanent allegiance owed by Filipinos who were nationals of the United States.”

The Court further explained that  “[a]nything less than the severance of the ties for all Filipinos, regardless of residence” whether in or outside of the United States “would not have fulfilled our longstanding national policy to grant independence to the Philippine people.”

In a nutshell, the Court decided that Rabang, as a Philippines-born U.S. resident, was an “alien.”  The independence of the Philippines ended Rabang’s status as a U.S. national, his status at the time of his birth in the then-U.S. territory of the Philippines.

In doing so, the Court considered the  “constitutionally secured birthright of citizenship acquired by the American-born”  to be in a class by itself.  Rabang was deported.

The decision was written by Justice William J. Brennan, who is known as a champion for liberal causes.

An unusual case?

Deportation following a crime may seem like a special case. Rabang was not deported after the Philippines became independent, and might never have had his status questioned if he had not been arrested. However, this is not the only example of the loss of status among people born in the Philippines.

People from the Philippines had served valiantly in the U.S. military during World War II, and many had not expected to lose their favored status with the United States after they became an independent nation. Yet the U.S. had already set a quota of just 50 immigrants per year from the Philippines. This was part of the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 which provided for independence. Only 50 people from the Philippines, including those who had been U.S. nationals at birth, were allowed to come to live in the United States after independence.

“For the purposes of the Immigration Act of 1917,” says the Act, ”and all other laws of the United States relating to the immigration, exclusion, or expulsion of aliens, citizens of the Philippine Islands who are not citizens of the United States shall be considered as if they were aliens.”

In 1946, President Harry Truman doubled the number to 100.

The right to retain U.S. citizenship under independence often hinges on the idea that Congress can’t revoke U.S. citizenship, even for people born in Puerto Rico, whose U.S. citizenship is granted in a 1917 law but not protected explicitly in the U.S. Constitution.

President Coolidge had warned the Philippines that they were mistaken if they thought that the United States would maintain the former relationship “through sympathy” after independence. The history of the Philippines may be a useful tool in making predictions about the likely behavior of the federal government should Puerto Rico become independent.

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