President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, the law that gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, on March 2, 1917. That makes March 2, 2017, the 100 year anniversary of Puerto Rican citizenship in the United States.
Everyone born in Puerto Rico is a U.S. citizen by birthright, and this has been true now for a century. Just last year, a survey found that half of Americans in the study didn’t know that people born in Puerto Rico were citizens just like people born in Montana. Lack of awareness of this fact certainly affects attitudes towards Puerto Rico, especially during the current fiscal challenges facing the island.
And in spite of the fact that they are U.S. citizens, residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections. This is because individuals don’t elect American presidents: states do. Since Puerto Rico is a territory of the U.S. rather than a state, the people do not get to choose electors to cast their votes in the electoral college.
People in Puerto Rico may also have some misunderstandings about their citizenship. Puerto Rican residents’ U.S. citizenship is not guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. It was conferred by Congress. And what is granted can be taken away.
If Puerto Rico votes for independence or free association in June, the residents of Puerto Rico are likely to find that their access U.S. citizenship will not continue indefintely. The United States has never had a policy of granting dual citizenship to all the citizens of another nation. Residents of the three nations that are in free association with the United States do not have U.S. citizenship. The last time the topic came up in the U.S. Congress, then-U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh said that “it would not be in the best interests” of the U.S. to allow an independent Puerto Rico, with or without free association with the U.S., to keep U.S. citizenship.
Some Puerto Rican leaders have declared that Puerto Rico will be able to maintain U.S. citizenship even with free association, but a treaty between two independent nations cannot force a position on one side or the other. A compact of free association can also be changed by either side, and the U.S. has done so with the nations that are currently free associated states. It is impossible to guarantee U.S. citizenship for Puerto Rico unless Puerto Rico becomes a state.
Once Puerto Rico becomes a state, citizenship would be assured. Statehood is a permanent relationship between the state and the federal government, and people born in one of the states are automatically citizens of the United States.
Statehood is the only status option that guarantees another century of citizenship.