To Be or Not to Be: Puerto Ricans and Their Illusory U.S. Citizenship

By Torruella, Juan R. | Centro Journal, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

To Be or Not to Be: Puerto Ricans and Their Illusory U.S. Citizenship


Torruella, Juan R., Centro Journal


The saga of the U.S. citizenship granted to Puerto Ricans in 1917 alone spans 100 years. The travails of Puerto Rico's status under U.S. governance stretches over 120 years, during which period the issues raised by this condition have been the subject of various and conflicting interpretations and views (Burnett and Marshall 2001; Lawson and Seidman 2004; Leibowitz 1989; Lewis 1963; Magruder 1953; Neuman and Brown-Nagin 2015; Nugent 2008; Torruella 1985, 2013, 2014). This American epoch was preceded by more than 400 years under Spanish sovereignty, mostly under outright colonial rule. This period is not totally irrelevant to the present circumstance (Carta Autonómica 1897). Considering this historical background, it is apropos that Puerto Rico was given the ignominious appellation of "the world's oldest colony" by the Honorable José Trías Monge (1997), former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico. In keeping with this unenviable title, over the last 120 or so years and, remarkably extending into this 21st century, there has been very little meaningful change in either the status of Puerto Rico or that of its citizens.

This article offers a survey of the most relevant historical and constitutional events affecting Puerto Rico and its inhabitants since 1898. Its principal thesis is that it is increasingly difficult to claim that Puerto Ricans born in Puerto Rico can be said to be U.S. citizens in the full constitutional and legal sense. This assertion is particularly applicable to persons born in Puerto Rico who continue to reside there. This question is further brought into focus when one considers this matter in the light of the enigmatic status of Puerto Rico, an underlying issue that permeates the problems discussed in this article, and is the second major theme that is herein addressed.

I.Citizenship

The most obvious common thread in studying the subject of citizenship today is the modern-day link between citizenship and political enfranchisement. As cogently stated by Professor Rogers M. Smith in his book Civic Ideals, "[t]he term 'citizen,' a product of ancient Greek and Roman city-states, was originally limited to only those men who had a share in the political life of their polis, not [to] all who lived there (1997, 14). Consistent with this notion, Americans1 began calling themselves "citizens" to "emphasize that they were no longer subjects of the British crown," but instead the creators of a separate and distinct political entity, a "modern self-governing republic" (Smith 1997, 14).

Legally, however, the notion that Americans' rights and privileges stemmed from their citizenship status was not established until much later. Ironically, that idea was the product of an infamous Supreme Court case whose central holding was about who was not a citizen-a case about excluding persons in the United States from enjoying the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution because of their conditions of servitude. The case is, of course, Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856). As Judge José Cabranes of the Second Circuit has noted, Dred Scott introduced "[t]he notion of citizenship as the source of rights" (Cabranes 1978, 396, n. 12). This case held, for the first time in American constitutional history, "that rights and privileges under the Constitution were accorded to citizens, that citizenship and membership in the political community were synonymous" (Cabranes 1978). Congress has used citizenship as a tool for political exclusion ever since. As Smith observed in Civic Ideals, "[w]hen restrictions on voting rights, naturalization, and immigration are taken into account, it turns out that for over 80% of the history of this nation, American laws have in effect declared most people in the world legally ineligible to become full U.S. citizens solely because of their race, original nationality, or gender" (1997, 15).

If ever there was any doubt that the question of race was a major issue in the granting of so-called U. …

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