The Puerto Rico Status Act: The Options

Over the weekend, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva  (D-AZ) and a small bipartisan group of Congressional representatives met with leaders in Puerto Rico for public input on The Puerto Rico Status Act, the new bill on Puerto Rico’s status.

This is a discussion draft bill. It will go through a process of voter input, including the meetings in Puerto Rico, a web page allowing public discussion, and markup in the Natural Resources Committee before it goes to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote.

What is in the bill?

The Act is described as “A bill to enable the people of Puerto Rico to choose a permanent, nonterritorial, fully self-governing political status for Puerto Rico and to provide for a transition to and the implementation of that permanent, nonterritorial, fully self-governing political status.”

The bill calls for a plebiscite on November 5, 2023, giving voters in Puerto Rico the choice of three options:

  • Independence
  • Statehood
  • Sovereignty in Free Association with the United States

A majority of the votes — that is, more than 50% — is required for any option to win. If none of the three choices should receive more than 50% of the votes, a run-off between the two highest-scoring choices will take place on March 4, 2024.

At the most recent plebiscite in November 2020, 53% of the voters chose statehood. If the same proportion of voters were to choose statehood again, statehood would win.

Independence

The next section defines independence as “Puerto Rico is a sovereign nation that has full authority and responsibility over its territory and population under a constitution of its own adoption which shall be the supreme law of the nation.”

It says that Puerto Rico will have full authority as sovereign nations normally do, and specifies that “Puerto Rico has full authority and responsibility over its citizenship and immigration laws.”

The bill also provides that “birth in Puerto Rico or relationship to persons with statutory United States citizenship by birth in the former territory shall cease to be a basis for United States nationality or citizenship, except that persons who have such United States citizenship have a right to retain United States nationality and citizenship for life, by entitlement or election as provided by Federal law.”

The meaning appears to be that people who are U.S. citizens because they were born in Puerto Rico can continue to hold that U.S. citizenship throughout their lifetimes, though their children will not be citizens.

The sentence is ambiguous since it speaks of “entitlement or election as provided by Federal law.” This could mean that Puerto Ricans would have to choose between U.S. and Puerto Rican citizenship (election).  It is also not clear what Federal law is referenced. There are currently no Federal laws that provide U.S. citizenship for citizens of other nations en masse.

This section goes on to say that the laws and the Constitution of the United States would no longer apply to Puerto Rico.

Statehood

The section on statehood says, “The State of Puerto Rico is admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the other States in all respects whatever and is a part of the permanent union of the United States of America, subject to the United States Constitution, with powers not prohibited by the Constitution to the States and reserved to the State of Puerto Rico or to its residents.”

This is the same as every other State.

On the subject of citizenship, the Act specifies that “U.S. citizenship of those born in Puerto Rico is recognized, protected, and secured under the U.S. Constitution in the same way such citizenship is for all U.S. citizens born in the other States.”

Sovereignty in Free Association with the United States

This is the least clear of the three options. Independence for Puerto Rico would presumably be like independence for the Philippines or Cuba. Statehood for Puerto Rico would be like statehood for the other 50 States. But the definition of free association in the bill is not identical to that of the current three free associated states of Palau, the Marshall Islands, or the Federated States of Micronesia.

The definition of Sovereignty in Free Association with the United States begins just as the definition of independence does: “Puerto Rico is a sovereign nation that has full authority and responsibility over its territory and population under a constitution of its own adoption which shall be the supreme law of the nation.” This definition also stipulates that the U.S. Constitution and Federal laws will not apply to Puerto Rico.

The draft has some things to say about citizenship in a free associated state of Puerto Rico, but it does not say that U.S. citizenship is “recognized, protected, and secured under the U.S. Constitution,” like the bill’s definition of statehood does. This is consistent with current law.

Current citizens of the three current freely associated states do not qualify for U.S. citizenship.

Read the Puerto Rico Status Act – Discussion Draft

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