The Puerto Rico Status Act, a bill which would end Puerto Rico’s colonial position in favor of a permanent political status, has several sections dealing with the question of U.S. citizenship for Puerto Rico’s population. If Puerto Rico becomes a state, then of course U.S. citizenship is guaranteed and protected by the U.S. Constitution. If the Island’s voters choose some form of independence, however, the act calls for different arrangements.
It has not been completely clear what the outcome would be; no sovereign nation has ever had universal dual citizenship with the United States and it is not clear that Congress would allow it, yet many supporters of the free association and independence options claimed that current U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico could maintain and even pass on their citizenship after separation from the United States.
Word from Congress
In 2023, Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) shared a fact sheet on the question of citizenship in the Puerto Rico Status Act. The document, titled “THE PUERTO RICO STATUS ACT: Citizenship Provisions Explained,” builds on the House Natural Resources Committee version and gives the official word from Congress on how Congress interprets the positions put forward in the bill.
The explanation begins simply:
“Under Statehood, citizenship would operate in Puerto Rico as it does in the other fifty states.
Under 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.”
This is important, because it is clear that Congress will decide the question of U.S. citizenship for citizens of a new nation of Puerto Rico. It will not be up to the people of Puerto Rico or to the government of the new nation.
The next section says “The bill’s sponsors agree that causing the nation of Puerto Rico to remain indefinitely with a population that is the majority 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.”
This makes it clear that a new nation of Puerto Rico would see changes. Some separatists have claimed that there would be no change in the citizenship rights of citizens of Puerto Rico, but the document explicitly contradicts that claim, saying, “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.”
U.S. citizens born outside the U.S.
The document reviews sections 301 and 302 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Section 301(a) says that people born in the states are citizens of the United States by birthright. That’s simple. Section 302 says that people born in Puerto Rico are also U.S. citizens by birth.
Other sections of 301 give rules for people born outside of the United States. All of these sections provide that the child of a U.S. citizen who is born in a foreign country can also be a U.S. citizen under certain circumstances. The simplest case is when two U.S. citizens have a baby while visiting another country. That baby is a U.S. citizen. When only one parent is a citizen, there are rules requiring residence in the United States for one to five years, depending on the citizenship status of the other parent.
Having reviewed the rules, the document states that the provisions of INA 301 will be the same for Puerto Rico as for any nation, except for two things:
- Under independence, people whose citizenship comes from section 302 — that is, people born in Puerto Rico — cannot pass their citizenship along to their children. If parents from Connecticut have a baby in the new nation of Puerto Rico, that baby will be a U.S. citizen. If parents who were born in the territory of Puerto Rico have a baby in the new nation of Puerto Rico, that baby will not be a U.S. citizen.
- Under free association, citizenship can be passed on from parents born in Puerto Rico during the first term of the articles of free association. After that, the situation will be the same as under independence without free association. This statement is followed by “Reminder: The duration of the first Articles – and indeed all of the details in any Article of Free Association – would be subject to negotiation between the countries and would require approval by Congress and by the people of Puerto Rico.”
What does this mean in practical terms?
This explanation is written with the assumption that current U.S. citizens may keep their citizenship for life. It makes it clear that U.S. citizenship cannot be passed on to future generations except – perhaps – temporarily under free association. The document explicitly rejects the idea that a new nation of Puerto Rico could have birthright U.S. citizenship for its citizens in perpetuity.
The statement also makes it clear that Congress ultimately has the final say on U.S. citizenship. The bill cannot force Congress to agree to specific terms of free association, and if the current situation is any guide, it is eminently possible that Congress will simply walk away from the current bill’s aspirations, leaving would-be U.S. citizens in a new freely associated state of Puerto Rico alone to figure out how to keep up their U.S. connections.
The clarification document is helpful. It supports the claims already made by constitutional scholars that U.S. citizenship is guaranteed under statehood, but not if Puerto Rico becomes a new nation. It should be made clear to voters that this is what they are voting for.