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Media Response to US Citizenship Rallies Misses the Mark

Media coverage of rallies to celebrate U.S. citizenship anniversary varies in accuracy.

On March 2, 1917, the citizens of Puerto Rico were granted U.S. citizenship. Ninety six years later, Puerto Rican leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., in San Juan, and other cities to demand an end to second-class citizenship for Puerto Rico’s residents.

Reports of the demonstrations on the mainland vary in their accuracy. Many, including the Edmonton Journal, used an Associated Press story which said that the demonstrators were calling on President Obama to “honor the results of the referendum” held in November. This story expresses the issue with this line:

In the referendum’s first question, 54 per cent of voters said they were not content with commonwealth status.

In fact, the first question asked voters if they were satisfied with territorial status. “Commonwealth” is part of the name of Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico is a commonwealth only in the sense that Kentucky is a commonwealth: there is no legal force to the use of the term “commonwealth” for Puerto Rico, any more than there is for Kentucky.

Many people may not realize that Puerto Rico is a possession of the United States. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth and can come and go freely throughout the United States. Any citizens living in Puerto Rico cannot, however, vote in presidential elections, and Puerto Rico does not have senators or congressmen (or congresswomen). Puerto Rico is under control of Congress but does not have the same protections and privileges as states — and also cannot negotiate with the United States or with other countries as though it were an independent nation.

The Orlando Sentinel reported on a rally held in Altamonte Springs, Florida, near Orlando, where leaders made the same point.

Dennis Freytes, a community activist, said it this way (translation by the Sentinal):

We were granted citizenship by statute, not by the constitution and is not permanent… if Puerto Rico became independent, citizenship can be taken away. Also, the island is a territory as the constitution says, and belongs to the U.S.. The current Commonwealth status is ridiculous.

Supporters of statehood and of equal rights for Puerto Rico traveled to San Juan or to Washington, or held rallies in their own hometowns, because ninety-six years is long enough for second class citizenship to be a reality for the people of Puerto Rico.

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