Recent focus by Congress on Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory has brought up concerns about the fate of some of Puerto Rico’s popular attributes such as U.S. citizenship, the Puerto Rican Olympic team, and the use of Spanish on the island.
A sharp exchange between Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) included Velazquez’s statement that the “bare minimum” the United States owes Puerto Rico after more than a century of colonial oppression is assurance of continued citizenship.
Westerman retorted that nobody was “talking about taking away citizenship.” However, it is clear that Congress would have that option if Puerto Rico’s territorial status ends and Puerto Rico does not become a state.
The State Department has repeatedly spoken on this question. In a hearing on a Puerto Rico status bill in 1997, Ambassador Fred M. Zeder II said 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.”
“This would amount to an upgrade,” he said, “based on a vote by the people of Puerto Rico to terminate U.S. sovereignty in Puerto Rico.”
Other statements from the State Department, the Department of Justice, and the Congressional Research Service support the claim that Congress has the power to rescind Puerto Rican citizenship.
Concerns about statehood
U.S. citizenship is guaranteed under statehood, but concerns about statehood tend to focus on the Olympics and language. The International Olympics Committee makes decisions about the Olympics. Congress currently has the power to object to Puerto Rico’s participation in the Olympics, as both China and France have done with their territories in the past. Congress did not become involved when some athletes in Hawaii attempted to form a separate Olympics team. Current Puerto Rican athletes are eligible to join the broader U.S. team, and many do. This question really isn’t about statehood.
As for language, states make their own decisions about language, as guaranteed by the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides that any matter not covered under the U.S. Constitution (such as language) is up to the states. Congress could, under the Territorial Clause, impose language rules on the territory of Puerto Rico, but cannot do so with a state.