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
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
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
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, D-Ill. …