Skip to content

Controversy over U.S. Citizenship in Free Association

A former chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs has weighed into the debate on the fate of U.S. citizenship in a future sovereign Puerto Rico.

In an article published by both the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Dia, former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) advises readers that “as Puerto Ricans ponder their future, they’ll need to separate fact from fiction.” The particular fiction she has in mind is the idea that Puerto Rico could have its own sovereignty while keeping U.S. citizenship – specifically in a free association relationship with the United States.

No Precedent

Ros-Lehtinen starts her op-ed by observing that during the 2022 congressional debate on the Puerto Rico Status Act (PRSA) one supporter noted that the proposal includes “dual citizenship rights” that are “like we have in the Marshall Islands or Palau.”

Ros-Lehtinen then clarifies that “[t]his could not be further from the truth.”

“In fact,” she adds, “in no ‘freely associated’ country can virtually all of the citizens have dual citizenship rights with the United States. Residents of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) are citizens of the Marshall Islands. Residents of the Republic of Palau are citizens of Palau.”

Today there are three nations in free association with the United States: Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).  All three nations were once administered as territories by the United States for the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI).

The TTPI is now broken up into three freely associated states and one U.S. territory:  the Northern Mariana Islands.

The people of the Northern Mariana Islands wanted U.S. citizenship and found a way to obtain it by becoming a U.S. territory.

The other islands that prioritized sovereignty – Palau, the RMI and FSM – did not receive U.S. citizenship.  They still do not have it today.

In her op-ed, the former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman explains that the U.S. State Department has been clear that U.S. citizenship and separate sovereignty don’t mix.  Ros-Lehtinen notes that “[t]he State Department’s reasons include, but are not limited to, foreign policy, immigration and diplomacy complications involving the protection of Puerto Rico’s three million U.S. citizens.”

“Imagine that: a foreign nation composed entirely of 3 million American citizens!” Ros-Lehtinen continues. “Puerto Rico’s voters need to know this before they cast a ballot. They need to know that there is no precedent for the United States to give virtually all the citizens of any sovereign nation U.S. citizenship, potentially in perpetuity.”

Read the article in Spanish.

A Negotiation or A Hope?

In a critique of the Ros-Lehtinen op-ed, Javier A. Hernández argues that in free association negotiations between the U.S. and Puerto Rico “Puerto Ricans will be able to maintain their U.S. citizenship and also become Puerto Rican citizens.”

“They would decide,” Hernández predicts with optimism, referring to the Puerto Rican side of the negotiations. He does not provide a source for his optimism, nor does he address previous statements to the contrary, such as:

  • “The proposal that virtually 100% of the population of Puerto Rico could keep the current U.S. nationality and statutory citizenship and at the same time also acquire separate Puerto Rican nationality and citizenship under a new government-to-government treaty relationship establishing separate sovereignty, is legally inconsistent and politically incompatible with separate sovereignty for Puerto Rico.” — Ambassador Fred M. Zeder II, the President’s Personal Representative for Micronesian Status Negotiations, who negotiated the first free association compacts. (Read full testimony here or here)
  • “[Under] mandates that all persons born in Puerto Rico receive U.S. citizenship, the United States would be required to confer U.S. citizenship on persons whose admission to Puerto Rico it apparently would not control. This is an unacceptable surrender of sovereignty by the United States with profound consequences since birth in Puerto Rico would guarantee the right to enter, live, and work in any part of the United States.” — Assistant Legal Advisor for Treaty Affairs Robert Dalton, U.S. Department of State (Read full testimony here.)
  • “The people of Puerto Rico should understand what choosing independence or sovereignty entails: that is, separation from the U.S. federal system and the related benefits.” —Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR), Chairman, Natural Resources Committee, U.S. House of Representatives.

There are two sides to every negotiation, and the U.S. has never agreed to extend its prized citizenship in any free association relationship.  Not when the free association negotiations were led by Ambassador Zeder, and not since.

“The reason that citizens of the three current associated countries are not U.S. citizens is that they did not want U.S. citizenship,” Hernández explains.

It is true that the three freely associated states may not have wanted U.S. citizenship.  Had they wanted U.S. citizenship, their path forward was to become U.S. territories – as in the case of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Having served on the House committee that approves the free association compacts, former chair Ros-Lehtinen seems to have little patience for unsubstantiated optimism on a matter well-established in U.S. law and public policy, as evidenced in the existing compacts of free association that she helped enact into law.

“Let’s have this discussion with honesty and integrity,” she writes. “Let’s start by getting the facts right.”

Lessons from the Philippines for Puerto Rico

Updated March 4, 2023

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Magazine, and enjoy exclusive benefits

Subscribe to the online magazine and enjoy exclusive benefits and premiums.

[wpforms id=”133″]