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The Puerto Rico Status Act: The Citizenship Question

The Puerto Rico Status Act, the discussion draft compromise bill on Puerto Rico’s political status currently being considered in Congress, calls for a vote on three options:

  • statehood
  • sovereignty in free association with the U.S.
  • independence

Among the issues presented in the bill, one of the most challenging is the question of U.S. citizenship. At present, all three options are presented as offering continued U.S. citizenship to current U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico, and both free association and statehood offer ongoing citizenship for the offspring of these current U.S. citizens.

Discussions of the question suggest that Congress, and possibly even the House Natural Resources Committee, can make the decision to guarantee U.S. citizenship for citizens of a new nation of Puerto Rico.

Is it up to the Natural Resources Committee?

The draft legislation, which includes provisions relating to immigration and foreign affairs, is likely to fall under the jurisdiction of both the Judiciary Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives as well as the Natural Resources Committee, which is currently working on it.  It remains to be seen whether the House Judiciary Committee, which has been unsuccessful in efforts to provide U.S. citizenship or even permanent resident status for DREAMERS could or even would advance  U.S. citizenship for residents in the sovereign nation of Puerto Rico.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has also not yet had a chance to influence the discussion draft of the bill.  It remains to be seen how the Committee will respond to the historic opposition from the State Department, which has testified in opposition to U.S. citizenship being offered to residents of a sovereign nation of Puerto Rico.

The State Department in 2000

“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,” one State Department witness made clear in congressional testimony.

“Moreover, our opposition is not based merely on conceptual difficulties in reconciling dual nationality with sovereignty,” Assistant Legal Advisor for Treaty Affairs Robert Dalton explained. “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 Government to provide consular protection to United States citizens in Puerto Rico[.]”

“Under the proposed scheme,” he added, “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.

“In addition, [under] mandates that all persons born in Puerto Rico receive U.S. citizenship, the United States would be required to confer U.S. citizenship on persons whose admission to Puerto Rico it apparently would not control. This is an unacceptable surrender of sovereignty by the United States with profound consequences since birth in Puerto Rico would guarantee the right to enter, live, and work in any part of the United States.”

The State Department in 1997

The State Department also had witnesses in hearings on a Puerto Rico status bill (HR 856) in 1997.

Ambassador Fred M. Zeder II wrote that “[the] proposal that virtually 100% of the population of Puerto Rico could keep the current U.S. nationality and statutory citizenship and at the same time also acquire separate Puerto Rican nationality and citizenship under a new government-to-government treaty relationship establishing separate sovereignty, is legally inconsistent and politically incompatible with separate sovereignty for Puerto Rico.”

He continued that the idea that Puerto Ricans under that circumstance could have guaranteed citizenship comparable to 14th amendment citizenship “is even more implausible.”

“This would amount to an upgrade,” he wrote, “based on a vote by the people of Puerto Rico to terminate U.S. sovereignty in Puerto Rico.”

What Will Happen to U.S. Citizenship in a New Nation of Puerto Rico? The Word from Washington

“It’s in the bill”

Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), pressed on the question of citizenship in a Free Associated State of Puerto Rico, briskly answered, “It’s in the bill.” On the question of whether the Constitution would allow a new “commonwealth” relationship in Natural Resources Committee hearings, she said, “We hold the pen.” It is clear that she believes that Congress can grant Puerto Ricans a citizenship upgrade in a sovereign nation in free association with the U.S.  History, however, is more ambiguous.

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