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For Educators: Complicated Immigration Issues in Puerto Rico and the Philippines

Educators often feel the need to tread carefully when developing curricula covering the topic of immigration.

Studying immigration most often takes the form of examination of the great waves of immigration into the United States in the early part of the 20th century. Looking at anything more recent can easily get classroom teachers into political quagmires they want to avoid.

Here’s an idea: compare the cases of the Philippines and Puerto Rico. This situation is one that most students never learn about. The study allows students to overcome or even avoid one of the big social studies errors most common among American adults. It’s a complex issue but it’s easy to stick with the facts and sidestep the emotional overtones that can make studying immigration so challenging.

The background

After five decades of being a United States territory, the Philippines was officially granted independence in 1946. The Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, better known as the Philippines Independence Act, set the terms of the ten-year transition.

Notably, the Philippines Independence Act changed the status of Filipinos living in the United States, stripping them of their U.S. nationality status that granted them special privileges and reclassifying them as “aliens” under U.S. immigration law. Many Filipino nationals who lived in the United States had a problem with the sudden change in status. This situation was addressed in the United States Supreme Court case, Rabang v. Boyd.

Rabang was born in the Philippines but was granted permanent U.S. residence in 1930. After being convicted of violating federal narcotics laws in 1951, Rabang was ordered to be deported under the Independence Act, which provided for the “deportation of ‘any alien’ convicted of violating a federal narcotics law.”

Rabang took his case to the courts and ultimately ended up before the Supreme Court, which debated whether Rabang was deportable as an alien within the 1931 Act. Rabang argued that his status as a U.S. national, acquired through his birth in the Philippines, entitled him to the same protections as a person with the “constitutionally secured birthright citizenship acquired by the American-born,” not an alien who entered from a foreign country. The Court disagreed. Filipinos were now deemed “aliens” in the eyes of the law, regardless of how they initially entered the U.S.

As a newly minted independent country, Filipinos no longer owed allegiance to the United States. The U.S., likewise, owed no allegiance to Filipinos. Losing their nationality status left Filipinos without the protections they had enjoyed as U.S. residents.  They were instead subject to the same immigration laws as other ‘aliens,’ and Rabang would be no exception.

The past, present, and future

Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States at the same time as the Philippines. While the Philippines chose independence, Puerto Rico has continued to be a territory. It is still a territory of the United States today. The other big difference between the Philippines and Puerto Rico is that people born in the Philippines in its territorial days were nationals of the United States, while people born in Puerto Rico after 1917 are U.S. citizens. (People born in Puerto Rico between 1898 and 1917 were U.S. nationals, but none of these people would still be living.)

Note that people born in American Samoa are nationals, not citizens, of the United States. Examine the difference between being a national and being a citizen of a nation. Immigrants to the United States can become citizens, but they can also choose to live in the United States as resident aliens: people who are not citizens, but who are legally allowed to live and work in the United States.

Note also that people living in Puerto Rico, regardless of where they were born and regardless of their U.S. citizenship, cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections. People born in Puerto Rico who move to a state can immediately vote in presidential elections. People from Puerto Rico who move to a state are U.S. citizens, not immigrants. Moving from Puerto Rico to Florida is the same as moving from Georgia to Florida.

Close to six million people of Puerto Rican heritage live in the states. Many were born in Puerto Rico and came to the U.S. as U.S. citizens. However, Puerto Rico could become an independent nation as the Philippines did. In that case, the U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico could lose their U.S. citizenship, just as the citizens of the Philippines lost their U.S. national status.  There is no obvious precedent that says otherwise.

Lesson part 1: Understanding citizenship

U.S. nationals cannot vote in presidential elections, no matter where they live. U.S. citizens living in foreign countries can vote in presidential elections, but those who live in a territory cannot. Resident aliens — people who are citizens of another country but who live legally in the United States — also cannot vote in presidential elections. Make sure this is clear by having students create a grid showing this information. Their tables should look like this:

Lesson part 2: The Rabang case

With a clear idea of the difference between being a citizen and being a national, read the story of Mr. Rabang and his case before the Supreme Court. Mr. Rabang claimed that as a U.S. national, he was in a different legal position from a resident alien. He could not be deported, he said, because he had been a U.S. national when he moved to the states.

Once the Philippines became an independent country, however, Mr. Rabang lost his status as a U.S. national. The Supreme Court said that, while Rabang had been a U.S. national when he came to the states, he lost that position when his native country became independent.

Lesson part 3: Understanding Puerto Rico’s political status

On December 15, 2022, the House of Representatives passed a law saying that Puerto Rico could choose to become independent, with or without a Compact of Free Association, or could choose to become a state. This law was called the Puerto Rico Status Act. While President Biden supported the legislation, there was no time for the law to get through the Senate. Bills must be passed by the House and the Senate and signed by the president to become laws.

It is possible that a law like this could be passed in the future. In that case, Puerto Rico could become a state like Hawaii or Alaska, or it could become an independent country as the Philippines did. If Puerto Rico became a state, people born in Puerto Rico would still be U.S. citizens. They could vote in presidential elections and could not be deported.

However, if Puerto Rico became a sovereign nation, people born in Puerto Rico might lose their U.S. citizenship. If they lived in a state, they would be aliens. They would no longer be able to vote in presidential elections.

Lesson part 4: Speculative fiction

Once students clearly understand the complexity of this situation, ask them to write a story. In their story, Congress passes a bill like the Puerto Rico Status Act. Have students create a flow chart showing the possibilities for U.S. citizenship for Puerto Rico. It should look something like this:


Have students choose a path and write a story about someone facing the situation they’ve imagined.

Have student pairs exchange papers and check each other’s stories to make sure they are logically consistent — that is, that the events that take place fit into the situation they’ve described.

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