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Citizens of the Freely Associated States in the U.S.

In April, Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the lead Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, reintroduced legislation to offer the people of Puerto Rico a chance to end the island’s status as a U.S. territory and choose a new, democratic relationship with the U.S.

In this legislative proposal, the Puerto Rico Statehood Act, Congress offers a referendum to Puerto Rican voters with three options: statehood, becoming a foreign country or becoming a foreign country with a free association arrangement like the U.S. has with three small Pacific Island nations – Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Given the importance of U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rican voters, sections of the bill describing the fate of U.S. citizenship in a future Puerto Rico are lengthy, and bill sponsors have even provided a two-page summary of provisions related to U.S. citizenship.

Fortunately, there’s precedent for the fate of U.S. citizenship under each option in the proposed Puerto Rican plebiscite.  There’s no need to guess.  It’s all been done before.

First, under statehood, everyone in Puerto Rico would be U.S. citizens, just like in the fifty states, through the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.  The bill is clear that U.S. citizenship for the people of Puerto Rico would be “recognized, protected, and secured” if Puerto Rico became a state.

Second, under independence, U.S. citizenship would eventually end.  The U.S. cannot impose U.S. citizenship in a foreign country.

The third option on the ballot, sovereignty in free association with the United States, is typically also referred to as independence, even by a Special Envoy appointed by President Biden to negotiate the terms of these U.S. relationships.  In other words, U.S. citizenship eventually ends.

Yet the sovereignty in free association option on the proposed plebiscite ballot has confused a lot of people, even Members of Congress.  No one appears to really know what it is. The bill includes “dual citizenship rights” that are “like we have in the Marshall Islands or Palau,” said one congressional champion of the proposal while speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Yet as a former Chairwoman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee subsequently pointed out, the citizens of the Marshall Islands and Palau are not citizens of the United States.  They have never been citizens of the U.S. Not for a year, not for a day, and not for the duration of any free association agreement.

The Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) that have been negotiated between the United States and the Free Associated States (FAS) are silent on the issue of U.S. citizenship.  COFA citizens have not been granted U.S. citizenship.

So what do we really know about the status of citizens from the FAS? Fortunately, the federal government provides a summary on the topic through a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration (USCI) Services fact sheet on the citizens of Palau and a USCI fact sheet on citizens of the other two FAS – the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia.

Status of FAS citizens

Here are some important facts gleaned from those government documents:

  • A 1985 resolution “established the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands as independent nations.” In 1986, The Republic of Palau was identified as “a sovereign nation.” There is no ambiguity on this point. The governments of each of these nations and the United States have affirmed that they are independent and sovereign countries.
  • Citizens of these nations “are not citizens or nationals of the United States.”
  • Migrants may travel and apply for admission to the United States as nonimmigrants without visas. However, “admission to the United States is not guaranteed.”
  • “Most grounds of inadmissibility under U.S. immigration laws, such as criminal convictions, still apply.”
  • FAS citizens may live, study, and work in the United States indefinitely, but the United States has the right to set terms and conditions on the nonimmigrant stay, such as denial of certain benefits and opportunities.
  • To gain admission to the United States under the Compacts, a citizen of the FAS must possess a valid, unexpired passport but does not need a U.S. visa or any other travel documentation. They receive admission stamps, just as citizens of any other nation do.
  • Compact privileges apply only to FAS citizens; they do not apply to husbands, wives, and children of FAS citizens who are not citizens of FAS themselves and who must instead apply for admission under the provisions of U.S. immigration law that apply to their nationality and U.S. immigration status sought.
  • People who “cannot show that they have sufficient means of support in the United States may be deportable.” Other grounds of deportability, such as conviction for an aggravated felony, also apply.
  • Like other foreign workers in the United States, FAS citizens must complete for their employers at the time of hire an attestation regarding their employment authorization and present documents showing identity and employment authorization for completing Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification.

Is Puerto Rico different?

Supporters of free association for Puerto Rico may not be aware of these facts.  After all, the three freely associated states are tiny nations with populations topping out at roughly 100,000 people.  Palua is home to under 20,000.  People can be forgiven for not knowing much about them.

Fortunately, the U.S. government makes it easy to learn about them in basic briefing materials. The future for Puerto Rico may be uncertain, but the present realities of free association arrangements are clear.


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