U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Democrats have released a document explaining the U.S. citizenship provisions in the Puerto Rico Status Act.
The Committee’s special focus on the fate of U.S. citizenship in Puerto Rico if the U.S. territory were to become a state or foreign country underscores the significance of this issue in the debate over Puerto Rico’s status.
U.S. Citizenship in a New Nation of Puerto Rico
The document posted on the Committee website states that “[u]nder Independence and Sovereignty in Free Association with the United States, Puerto Rican citizenship would be determined by the nation of Puerto Rico, and U.S. citizenship would be determined by Congress.”
The text of the Puerto Rico Status Act further clarifies that under both of these options, being born in the former territory of Puerto Rico “shall cease to be a basis for United States nationality or citizenship.” Today, all people born in Puerto Rico qualify as U.S. citizens based on a 1917 law.
The bill text is also explicit that in both the independence and sovereign free association choices, “United States citizens have a right to retain United States nationality and citizenship for life, by entitlement or election as provided by Federal law.”
“By election” could mean that current U.S. citizens born in Puerto Rico would have to choose between U.S. citizenship and Puerto Rican citizenship in a new nation of Puerto Rico. Congress could pass a law with this requirement. Congress could also pass a law removing U.S. citizenship in the new nation altogether, just as it did for U.S. nationals in the Philippines when it became a sovereign nation.
At its core, the text of the Puerto Rico Status Act is unambiguous that U.S. citizenship is “recognized, protected, and secured” only under the bill’s statehood option. The ballot options for independence and sovereignty in free association do not contain this specific guarantee.
Passing on U.S. Citizenship to Children
Under independence, The Puerto Rico Status Act extends U.S. citizenship to children born to families in which both parents were born in a State, but not if one or both parents were born in Puerto Rico.
Under sovereignty in free association, the bill adds that “[i]ndividuals born in Puerto Rico to at least one parent who is a citizen of the United States shall be United States citizens at birth, consistent with the immigration laws of the United States, for the duration of the first agreement of the Articles of Free Association.”
The free association agreement referred to in this section is purely hypothetical at this point. If such an agreement does materialize, Congress will still have to pass it, making whatever changes are needed or desired along the way. U.S. citizenship is “recognized, protected, and secured” only under the bill’s statehood option.
Congressional Recognition of a Unique Situation
“Under Statehood, citizenship would operate in Puerto Rico as it does in the other fifty states,” says the House Natural Resources Committee’s document. Nationhood, however, is another story. The document continues:
“[T]he new nation of Puerto Rico would be unique among foreign nations in that it would already be populated overwhelmingly by U.S. citizens. Keeping [U.S. citizenship] default rules would prevent Puerto Rico from becoming a nation that is populated by a majority of its own citizens. The bill’s sponsors agree that causing the nation of Puerto Rico to remain indefinitely with a population that is the majority of the citizens of the United States would not be in the interest of the nation of Puerto Rico or in the interest of the United States. Accordingly, the bill would limit some of the scenarios in which persons born in the nation of Puerto Rico would be U.S. citizens at birth.”
Updated May 18, 2023.