The Puerto Rico Status Act calls for a vote in Puerto Rico on political status. It specifies three status options, two of which give Puerto Rico sovereign nationhood: independence and free association. Under either of these options, U.S. citizenship will be uncertain. There are several different scenarios that might arise.
Some of the U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico were born in a state. They are U.S. citizens under the 14th Amendment. Constitutional birthright citizenship in the U.S. is protected and permanent, regardless of where an individual moves.
Birthright citizenship naturally applies to people of Puerto Rican heritage who were born and continue to live in a state — in what is sometimes called the diaspora. A new nation of Puerto Rico will be able to decide whether people of Puerto Rican heritage who were born in states can also have Puerto Rican citizenship. The United States allows dual citizenship for individual citizens. Choosing citizenship in another country does not cause U.S. citizens to lose their U.S. citizenship.
Current statutory citizenship
People born in Puerto Rico since 1917 are U.S. citizens, but this is statutory citizenship, granted by Congress. It can be rescinded. Filipinos lost their status as U.S. nationals when the Philippines became independent, and it is equally possible that Puerto Ricans not born in a state will lose their statutory U.S. citizenship if the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico becomes a foreign country — whether they live in Puerto Rico or in a state. After all, the difference is only a plane ride.
Could the federal government insist on continued U.S. citizenship for all current U.S. citizens? That’s doubtful for people living in Puerto Rico. Mandating another country’s citizens to be U.S. citizens would violate that country’s sovereignty.
For Puerto Rican-born U.S. citizens living in a state at the time of Puerto Rican independence, the U.S. could provide a path to citizenship through the naturalization process, as with other immigrants. As the pending legislation provides: “United States citizens have a right to retain United States nationality and citizenship for life, by entitlement or election as provided by Federal law.”
The phrase “by election” in the Puerto Rico Status Act suggests that Puerto Ricans living in states when Puerto Rico becomes a sovereign country could choose to continue their United States citizenship. Under this scenario, the Puerto Ricans who “elect” to retain and protect their U.S. citizenship would have to go through the U.S. naturalization process.
An opening to gain Constitutionally-protected U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans as the U.S. territory transitions to nationhood could create a last-chance opening for U.S. citizenship for all Puerto Ricans – including those living in Puerto Rico. This opportunity could lead to mass migration from Puerto Rico to the states, which could come at a high cost to the new nation of Puerto Rico.
Loss of citizenship
The United States could rescind U.S. citizenship for anyone born in Puerto Rico when the new nation of Puerto Rico is formalized. For people still living in Puerto Rico, this could be a simple transition. The ability to travel, study, and work in the United States could be negotiated as part of a Free Association arrangement or any other treaty between the Republic of Puerto Rico and the United States. Puerto Rico could issue passports and its citizens would, like the citizens of the Philippines, be in the same relationship to the United States as people from any other foreign country.
People born in Puerto Rico but living in the United States would be in a more complicated situation. When the Philippines became independent, Filipinos in the United States were offered a streamlined naturalization process if they wanted to become U.S. citizens. This could be a good plan for Puerto Ricans as well. However, there is no expedited process for current freely associated states, as free association expert Peter Watson recently pointed out at a Congressional Hearing.
Many people from the Philippines did not become U.S. citizens in 1946 when they lost their status as U.S. nationals. If this were true of people from Puerto Rico, they might find themselves to be stateless. Their status would depend on laws passed in the new Republic of Puerto Rico. If they automatically became Puerto Rican citizens under Puerto Rico law, they would be foreign citizens living on U.S. soil. There would likely be some form of registration in order for the United States to continue to control citizenship and immigration in the United States.
Former U.S. nationals from the Philippines living in states did not face immediate consequences upon Philippines’ independence. There were no mass deportations. But some individuals were deported. Those who remained in the states without citizenship were always living under the threat of deportation.
Even those who never faced deportation were limited in their rights as non-citizens without any official status in the United States.
Citizens of nations of sovereign free association with the U.S. who live in the U.S. have found that they do not receive the same treatment or the same benefits as U.S. citizens.
Which of these options will take place? It depends on the decisions made by both the United States and the new nation of Puerto Rico. Each will have full control over the immigration and citizenship laws of its own country.
A transition could also be part of the plan. People born in Puerto Rico could have free transit in the U.S. or maintain their citizenship for a negotiated number of years to enable people to apply for migrant status or naturalization. The Philippines had a 10-year transition period before independence, but Filipino citizens could be deported after independence in 1946.
Given that U.S.-issued passports are valid for ten years, a ten-year transition period to Puerto Rican nationhood would allow all U.S. passports issued before the formalization of the new country to expire before the end of U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans. Objections to the idea of a transition period arose during consideration of the Puerto Rico Status Act in 2022, but the wording was not changed before the House passed the bill.
In any event, U.S. citizenship in a new sovereign nation of Puerto Rico would eventually end, and even Puerto Rican-born U.S. citizens living in a state at the time of Puerto Rican nationhood may have to navigate a new system with inherent risks.
Updated June 14, 2023