Puerto Ricans in the United States sometimes get tired of being included and even featured in discussions of immigration reform. “We may be Hispanic,” the weary response goes, “but we’ve been citizens of the United States for nearly a century. Immigration doesn’t affect us any more closely than it does any other Americans.”
A Washington Post editorial on conservative responses to immigration reform quoted Rep. Paul Ryan as saying, “We do not want to have a society where we have different classes of people who cannot reach their American dream by not being a full citizen.”
Immigration reform may not be any closer to the hearts of Puerto Ricans than of any other Americans, but the idea of having “different classes of people” and “not being a full citizen” might be. Puerto Rico’s residents cannot vote in presidential elections. They do not have full representation in Congress or in the Senate. They receive some of the benefits of citizenship in the form of federal assistance of various kinds — but not, typically, as much as those who live on the mainland, and any assistance they receive is given at the whim of Congress, not as a natural part of citizenship. Puerto Ricans serve in the armed forces in vast numbers and may pay federal taxes, they can travel freely within the United States, but many Americans do not even realize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
This brings us back to the issue of immigration. As long as immigration reform is seen as the primary means of wooing Hispanic voters, we may actually continue to see the rights of Puerto Ricans overlooked.
U.S. territories have been considered parts of the United States on a path to full citizenship since the 1700s. In 1922, during a period of U.S. history which is recognized by historians as showing an upswing in racism, Puerto Rico was redefined by the Supreme Court in the case of Balzac vs. Porto Rico (sic). In this case, Puerto Rico was described as very different from Alaska and Louisiana and not necessarily covered by the Constitution. The court announced that it was not at all sure that the United States wanted Hispanic people as part of the United States:
We need not [infer] an intention to incorporate in the Union these distant ocean communities of a different origin and language from those of our continental people.
It is to be hoped that we have overcome the ideas that led to this notion of “distant ocean communities” which , unlike Alaska, did not offer “opportunity for immigration and settlement by American citizens.” Sixty-one percent of the American citizens on the island now have voted to seek statehood.
Puerto Ricans have been loyal citizens of the United States for ninety-six years. They should have had full citizenship before now; they should have statehood now that they have asked for it. There is irony in working toward full citizenship for non-citizens who entered the united States illegally before providing full citizenship for the nearly four million natural-born citizens of Puerto Rico.
All Americans should have full citizenship because this is what America stands for. Honoring Puerto Rico’s rights might help to show that we have made some progress, as a nation, since 1922. It might help to demonstrate to Hispanic Americans that concern for equal rights is not mere strategy for gaining votes in the next election. It might allow us, as a nation, to focus on the difficult questions of immigration reform outside of Hispanic voter hot buttons.
It would, at the very least, be the right thing to do.