In the Puerto Rico Statehood Act (HR 8393), a bill that passed the House last year, U.S. citizenship is “recognized, protected, and secured” only if Puerto Rico becomes a state.
Some supporters of nationhood for Puerto Rico – either clean independence or in a free association arrangement with the U.S. – thought that US citizenship should be equally secure under their preferred status options. It can’t be.
The process of creating the Puerto Rico Status Act – the first Puerto Rico Status bill negotiated by supporters of multiple status options – and its current demise is proof that US citizenship is only possible under statehood.
What does HR 8393 say about citizenship under statehood?
Here’s the text from the proposed ballot:
(4) STATEHOOD.—If you agree, mark here ____.
(A) 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.
(B) The residents of Puerto Rico are fully self-governing with their rights secured under the United States Constitution, which shall be fully applicable in Puerto Rico and which, with the laws and treaties of the United States, is the supreme law and has the same force and effect in Puerto Rico as in the other States of the Union.
(C) United States citizenship of those born in Puerto Rico is recognized, protected, and secured under the United States Constitution in the same way such citizenship is for all United States citizens born in the other States.
Thie bill clearly states that “United States citizenship of those born in Puerto Rico is recognized, protected, and secured under the United States Constitution in the same way such citizenship is for all United States citizens born in the other States.”
Identical language was used in the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed on March 4, 1998.
Citizenship under separate nationhood
The pending legislation offers two other non-territorial status options for Puerto Rico:
- Sovereignty under free association with the United States
These two options likewise have definitions of citizenship. Under Independence:
Puerto Rico has full authority and responsibility over its citizenship and immigration laws, and 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.
According to the bill, Puerto Ricans who do not currently have U.S. citizenship would not be able to attain it, even if they are born in Puerto Rico or related to people who have U.S. citizenship based on a statute. This phrase is clearly geared to anyone who was born in Puerto Rico since 1917 when Congress enacted a statute granting U.S. citizenship to people born in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans do not qualify for U.S. citizenship under the U.S. Constitution. They instead qualify under a federal law and lack related protections.
Under free association, U.S. citizenship for people born in Puerto Rico continues to be limited:
Puerto Rico has full authority and responsibility over its citizenship and immigration laws, and persons who have United States citizenship have a right to retain United States nationality and citizenship for life by entitlement or election as provided by Federal law.
(D) Birth in Puerto Rico shall cease to be a basis for United States nationality or citizenship. Individuals born in Puerto Rico to parents both of whom are United States citizens shall be United States citizens at birth, consistent with the immigration laws of the United States, for the duration of the first agreement of the Articles of Free Association.
Under this statement, being born in Puerto Rico would also no longer qualify an individual for U.S. citizenship. Starting immediately, anyone born in Puerto Rico who cannot prove that both parents are U.S. citizens will not be a U.S. citizen. In addition, after the expiration of the first Free Association agreement, even having one parent who is a U.S. citizen would not be enough to secure U.S. citizenship for the next generation. U.S. citizenship would be lost.
The current Compacts of Free Association for the Marshall Islands and Micronesia were finalized in 2003 and expire in 2023. The previous Compacts for these two nations were in force from 1986 to 2003. The Palau Compact was agreed to in 2010 and expires in 2024. The Palau Compact was not funded by the U.S. government until 2018.
Under each current Compact, residents of the freely associated states do not qualify for U.S. citizenship by birth.
In addition, the U.S. has complete military authority over the small Pacific Island nations. There is a significant military presence in the jurisdictions and an interest in expanding U.S. influence in the region.
Where do the definitions come from?
These definitions of citizenship were negotiated by Members of Congress. The definition of U.S. citizenship under statehood is the same as the one used in the 1998 Puerto Rico Political Status bill that the U.S. House of Representatives passed.
There have been expressions of concern over the fate of U.S. citizenship in a new nation of Puerto Rico.
For example, Melissa Mark-Viverito, former speaker of the New York City Council, wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that “many in Puerto Rico and the diaspora in the United States are … alarmed at… the lack of clarity on U.S. citizenship under free association, and …the imposition of unacceptable conditions under independence.”
There is also significant ambiguity surrounding the idea that, as the bill promises, current U.S. citizens would “have a right to retain United States nationality and citizenship for life” given that Constitutional 14th amendment citizenship is not available to people born in Puerto Rico by birthright even today.
Congress can technically rescind citizenship for current citizens of Puerto Rico at any time.
Even if the bill passes before the end of the year, it will be possible for those definitions to be changed by a future Congress.
Only under statehood is U.S. citizenship actually recognized, protected, or secured under the U.S. Constitution.