One of the most critical questions inherent in the debate over Puerto Rico’s future political status is the the fate of U.S. citizenship for people born in Puerto Rico.
While some supporters of independence may accept the loss of U.S. citizenship, most Puerto Ricans cherish their U.S. citizenship.
Although statehood would provide permanent U.S. citizenship for everyone born in Puerto Rico and in many cases their descendants as well, just as in the current 50 states, the other proposed status options do not guarantee continued U.S. citizenship.
As a sovereign nation, Puerto Rico will not be covered under the U.S. Constitution. As a result, U.S. citizenship – whether as an independent nation with bilateral treaties with the U.S. or an associated republic with a compact of free association – cannot be Constitutionally protected.
Lessons of history
Over twenty years ago, Robert Dalton, Assistant Legal Advisor for Treaty Affairs of the Department of State, testified before Congress on the practical impact of U.S. citizenship in a sovereign nation of Puerto Rico.
“We have concern about the proposal that would legislate dual nationality for residents of Puerto Rico, since it appears to be grounded in the recognition of the conferred citizenship on citizens of another nation, which is incompatible with the notion of sovereignty,” he said in oral testimony. “There are also problems… about the diplomatic protection of U.S. citizens who would be in Puerto Rico and the responsibilities that a United States embassy would have under U.S. law to protect those rights.”
In his written testimony, Dalton provided additional details beyond Constitutional concerns that showcase the practical problems in a sovereign nation of U.S. citizens.
“Moreover, our opposition is not based merely on conceptual difficulties in reconciling dual nationality with sovereignty,” Dalton continued. “The United States takes seriously the protection of its citizens in other countries and devotes considerable consular resources to assisting them. It is difficult to overestimate the size or complexity of the undertaking that would be necessary on the part of the United States.
Dalton went on to clarify the implications of this part of the law.
“Under the proposed scheme, every action or decision of Puerto Rican government officials would be scrutinized to assess its impact on U.S. citizens, and, one could easily presume, challenged based upon considerations of United States law. Our consular officials would be asked to intervene in the day-to-day actions of local government. In this untenable state of affairs, the U.S. Embassy in San Juan, were there to be one, would function as a ‘shadow government,’ in effect, ever watchful of the interests and concerns of the millions of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico,” he explained.
Dalton clearly dismissed the pending proposal that promised dual U.S. citizenship to the people of a sovereign Puerto Rico. “The Department of State opposes [pending legislation’s] attempt to legislate dual nationality for residents of Puerto Rico. Our opposition is grounded in the recognition that the conferral of that status upon the citizens of another nation is wholly incompatible with the notion of sovereignty.”
This is a very clear statement of the State Department’s unwillingness to allow citizens of a new nation to maintain U.S. citizenship along with their continued U.S. citizenship.