One of the common questions we see here at The Puerto Rico Report is this: “What country is Puerto Rico in?”
The simplest answer: the United States.
But it’s not a simple question.
According to controversial rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States, the islands are an unincorporated territory of the United States. That means a territory that has not been made a full and permanent part of the country. The U.S. Constitution mentions territories, saying that Congress can make all the rules applying to a territory of the United States. The Supreme Court invented the concept of unincorporated territories: territories belonging to the U.S. but still not a part of the United States.
Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898, when the United States took Puerto Rico, along with the Philippines and Guam, and liberated Cuba from Spain.
Like Cuba, the Philippines eventually gained independence, but the United States has kept ownership of Guam and Puerto Rico.
Citizenship for Puerto Rico
In 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act granted citizenship to residents of Puerto Rico. Many Puerto Ricans thought that this would mean that Puerto Rico would become part of the United States — and that statehood was in the islands’ future. The Supreme Court later ruled that Congress had not indicated an intent to make Puerto Rico a full and permanent part of the United States.
Most but not all laws, however, treat Puerto Rico as if it were a part of the United States.
So, Puerto Rico simply belongs to the United States. It isn’t exactly in the United States, but it is a possession of the United States.
Does it matter?
The Supreme Court has ruled that territories can be treated differently from States by the Federal government. Unincorporated territories can be treated differently in even more ways, according to the Court. This often means that Puerto Rico – and individual Puerto Ricans — receive less in Federal benefits than States and their residents – even non-citizens.
Being an unincorporated territory is not a permanent, settled status. It is presumed that a territory that has been made a part of the United States will become a State. But an unincorporated territory can also become a nation – whether independent or in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end. In theory, the United States could also cede Puerto Rico back to Spain. As long as a territory is unincorporated, its future is uncertain.
In 1952, the local Government of Puerto Rico took on a new name, “the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.” Puerto Rico is a “commonwealth” just as Massachusetts is a commonwealth: the word is part of the official name of the insular government. Neither Puerto Rico nor Massachusetts – nor any of the other States named “Commonwealth” or the other territory that use the word in the official name of its insular government – has a status different from other States and territories.
So, Puerto Rico is currently in the uncomfortable position of being a possession of the United States with its ultimate status undetermined, although its people are citizens of the United States.