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The False Hope of Guaranteed U.S. Citizenship

In a referendum held on November 2020, 52.52% of Puerto Rico’s voters selected statehood as their preferred status, while a minority (47.48%) of voters indicated that they would be in favor of any other option for Puerto Rico’s future.

The ballot choice was simply yes or no to statehood, and there was no ambiguity about what “statehood” would bring.  There are 50 real world examples of U.S. statehood, and, as the Supreme Court has made clear, all 50 are on “equal footing” with each other.

The 2020 plebiscite confirmed statehood wins in 2012 and 2017 referenda.

But what of the other options that voters who were part of the 47% minority may have been contemplating?

There is, after all, a robust discussion of other options, particularly undefined choices yet to be negotiated. The ongoing debate squares with the “commonwealth” idea that has been around since 1952.

Many definitions that statehood opponents have come up with for “other” status options have included a combination of irrevocable U.S. citizenship along with Puerto Rican sovereignty.

The “Pact of the Future” says that “American citizenship [is] an acquired right by Puerto Ricans and guarantees the permanence of said American citizenship as it exists today, to be obtained at birth and transferred to descendants.”

Read the “Pact of the Future”

It is important – perhaps ethically and morally so – for statehood opponents who favor sovereignty to spell out exactly how they envision the U.S. citizenship status of Puerto Ricans to play out.  For example, is there an assumption that all current U.S. citizens would keep their U.S. citizenship until death?  What about a baby born the day after independence is granted?  And what about one’s descendants?  For how many generations?

After all, permanent, hereditary U.S. citizenship to residents of another sovereign nation would be an unprecedented idea, and no elected federal official has ever offered such an arrangement to Puerto Rico.

U.S. citizenship for sovereign nations?

In fact, the United States has never guaranteed U.S. citizenship to residents of another nation in perpetuity. With looser ties and no U.S. representation under independence or free association, no ballot can guarantee Puerto Rico voters that Congress will decide to keep US citizenship for a nation that may vote against it in the United Nations.

Even residents of the three current Freely Associated States of the United States do not possess U.S. citizenship.  The U.S. currently has relationships with three Freely Associated States: the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. None of these nations’ residents have U.S. citizenship.  The only nation that has a majority of U.S. citizens is, indeed, the United States.

In 1991, then Attorney General Richard Thornburgh clearly established the United States’ position on dual citizenship.  He said that it would not be in the best interest of the United States to grant dual citizenship to an independent nation whose population consists entirely of U.S. citizens.  If Puerto Rico becomes politically independent, its residents would have to choose between U.S. citizenship and the citizenship of the new republic.  If Puerto Ricans choose a free association with the United States, U.S. citizenship could not be guaranteed together with Puerto Rico citizenship.

In 2001, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Robert Raben  said that a mutual consent stipulation (i.e. that the grant of citizenship cannot be altered except by mutual consent) was “constitutionally unenforceable.”

“If Puerto Rico is to become an independent nation, then, while Congress may well have the power to provide…that persons born in Puerto Rico in the future shall acquire United States citizenship,” he went on to say, “we think Congress could also change that rule and provide that, in the future, birth in Puerto Rico shall no longer be a basis for United States citizenship.”

Insistence on U.S. citizenship

An old item from the San Juan Star made the same claims about U.S. citizenship. It listed U.S. citizenship first among “essential elements for commonwealth.”

In 2020, Antonio J. Fas Alzamora, former President of the Puerto Rico Senate and a 40-year member of the Puerto Rico legislature, issued a new update of the pact as a proposed COFA (Compact of Free Association) between Puerto Rico and the United States.

The proposed new compact contains the same false assurances of permanent citizenship, saying, “All persons born to a Puerto Rican father or mother are citizens of the United States and of the Free Associated State of Puerto Rico.”

Alzamora clearly realizes that the federal government has repeatedly rejected the idea of citizenship for a sovereign Puerto Rico. He describes the pact as an agreement “between two democratic nations which share the same American Citizenship. The key to its realization is: ‘THE POLITICAL WILL.'”

He further claims, optimistically, that “Any amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 approved by the United States after the effective date of this Compact, which modifies or adds additional causes for losing United States citizenship, will in no way harm or limit the status of United States citizens that reside or were born in the Free Associated State of Puerto Rico.”

Later in the document, this statement continues to affirm the permanence of U.S. citizenship: “In the Free Associated State, the continuation of American Citizenship will arise from the Compact of Association itself and not from Federal Immigration Laws. Once Citizenship is granted, they cannot take it away and the Compact, as it establishes in its writing, guarantees Citizenship for future generations.”

The document has not been agreed to by any member of the United States government, nor by the Puerto Rico government. It does, however, make it clear that the demand for permanent U.S. citizenship continues to be a central feature of alternative status proposals, and it is clear that at least some of the 47% minority opposed to statehood had this type of this arrangement in mind when they voted “no.”

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