The outcome of Sunday's statehood vote in Puerto Rico could hinge on the reaction of voters to the specter raised by a U.S. senator that rejection could mean the loss of American citizenship.
The senator is Paul Simon, D-Ill. He said in an interview Friday that he was neither surprised nor apologetic that television commercials featuring his warning have taken center stage in the political drama of an island 2,000 miles from Illinois.
"I don't believe in colonialism," Simon said, "and I don't believe there should be second-class American citizens."
The ads aired on San Juan television stations go further. In them, Simon warns that the right to American citizenship itself "could disappear eventually," should Puerto Ricans vote to maintain the commonwealth status that has defined U.S.-Puerto Rican relations since 1952. The Spanish-speaking Caribbean island had been a U.S. possession since the Spanish-American War of 1898; its residents were granted American citizenship by act of Congress in 1917.
Congress could just as easily take that citizenship away, Simon contends. He cites an opinion by the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, issued in 1989 and reaffirmed in a letter to Simon earlier this month. It states that Puerto Rican citizenship rights "would appear to be amenable to alteration by the U.S. Congress."
Simon's television appearances were organized and funded by Puerto Rico's governing New Progressive Party, which strongly backs statehood.
Those who favor maintaining the commonwealth, members of the Popular Democratic Party, have called in some big mainland reinforcements, too - not least among them Simon's close liberal colleague, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
He is officially neutral in Sunday's vote, pledging to support whatever course Puerto Ricans decide. But that didn't stop him from blasting Simon, by implication, in a letter dated Nov. 8 to Miguel Hernandez Agosto, acting president of the Popular Democratic Party.
When the Congressional Research Service first issued its opinion on the citizenship question, Kennedy wrote, he submitted it to Lawrence Tribe, a specialist in constitutional law at Harvard Law School. Tribe dismissed it then as "incorrect," "completely fallacious" and "an irrelevant distraction."
What to make, then, of Simon's reliance on the same legal interpretation - four years later?
Kennedy wrote, "The use of scare tactics and the creation of a campaign of fear based upon insinuations that Congress will revoke Puerto Ricans' U.S. citizenship is wrong and unfair. It is unfortunate that proponents of statehood are resorting to such misleading and irresponsible arguments to advance their cause. U.S. citizenship cannot be taken away under either commonwealth or statehood status."
Simon's commercial also produced a backlash among congressional representatives of Puerto Rican descent. One of the harshest attacks came from Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, …