Puerto Ricans’ US Citizenship Just “Special Immigrant Status”

Yesterday marked the 97th anniversary of the Jones-Shafroth Act by Pres. Woodrow Wilson, declaring “that the citizens of Porto Rico” were from then on “citizens of the United States.”

It seems some leaders of the free world don’t know the definition of citizenship.

Before the act was signed in 1917, the people of “Porto Rico” were governed by the U.S. military. Some small concessions were made in 1900 for the establishing of a lower House, but the island’s governor and executive leadership were still appointed by the President. Not full citizenship. Just a consequence of the colonial power controlling its colony.

In fact, the closest Puerto Ricans have ever come to being citizens was before the Spanish-American War of 1898, before the United States decided to liberate the colony and introduce American-style democracy.

CREDIT: Alex Barth

CREDIT: Alex Barth

Less than a year before American boots landed on Puerto Rican soil, Spain had finally established the island’s autonomy. Under the 1897 Charter of Autonomy, though Spain still picked Puerto Rico’s governor, Puerto Ricans were granted equal representation in the Spanish legislature and allowed to accept or reject treaties and trade agreements passed by Spain. Puerto Rico would also elect its own local legislature and set its annual budget.

In a way, Puerto Rico became nearly as independent from the Spanish crown as Canada is from the British crown. Canada is considered an independent nation, though Queen Elizabeth II is still head of state, Queen of Canada, and appoints the governor general.

O, Puerto Rico! You were so close.

Under its current status, Puerto Rico is entirely under the plenary powers of the U.S. Congress, where Puerto Ricans living on the island don’t have equal representation. The resident commissioner of Puerto Rico is allowed to serve on committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, but once a bill is up for a vote on the House floor, he gets to sit and watch. Maybe he’s taking notes on how democracy works.

As for Puerto Rico’s representation in the Senate, that is a pipe dream.

Puerto Rico must accept whatever treaties and trade agreements the U.S. government enters into, and any treaties and agreements it seeks on its own must be approved by King George… I mean the U.S. government. Freudian slip.

Plenty of people love to point out that Puerto Ricans are exempt from a lot of the taxes other American citizens pay, but they’re also exempt from a lot of the benefits other American citizens receive.

Federal Medicaid funding is capped for Puerto Rico and other territories, though it’s not capped for the states. That means Puerto Rico is responsible for 100% of Medicaid funds exceeded the amount fixed by Congress—the Congress Puerto Ricans have no say in. Because Puerto Rico is twice as poor as the poorest state, Mississippi, the island receives far less federal funding than it would if its inhabitants were actual U.S. citizens.

Plus, every U.S. citizen is eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, considered one of America’s greatest anti-poverty policies. Yet, you guessed it, Puerto Ricans aren’t eligible for that either, which suggests that even the federal government doesn’t view Puerto Ricans as being actual citizens.

And in case you’re wondering, the poverty rate in Puerto Rico is at 45 percent, and its jobless rate hovers at 14 percent, three points higher than the state with the most unemployment, Nevada.

Now, while there may be different types of citizenship around the world, I refuse to accept that there can be different types of citizenship in America.

As I understand it, an American citizen is protected by the Bill of Rights, which doesn’t apply to Puerto Rico.


As an American citizen, I expect my rights to follow me wherever I go in the United States: American citizens lose the right to vote in federal elections when they live in Puerto Rico for over a year, because Puerto Rico isn’t technically in or part of the United States.

Puerto Rico is a political Bermuda Triangle, where Western democracy mystery vanishes without a trace.

As an American, I can choose to go to war for my country, or I can petition my government to not go to war: Puerto Ricans are eligible for the draft, while it’s Congress who declares war (and you remember what I said about Puerto Rican representation in Congress).

It’s clear that the type of American citizenship granted by the Jones Act in 1917 isn’t American citizenship at all, only special immigrant status. Puerto Ricans can travel freely, they join the military, they can vote in local elections, and they’re eligible for some federal benefits. But that’s as far as it goes.

They’re not citizens like I am. They don’t have the rights that so many actual American citizens have spilled their blood for. It’s not the kind of citizenship that Lincoln talked about, or Roosevelt, or King. It’s not the kind that Don Pedro Albizu Campos and Oscar López Rivera sacrificed themselves for.

Puerto Ricans have three-fifths citizenship.

As long as the status question of the island remains a Puerto Rican issue and not an American issue, the travesty will continue. Puerto Ricans will pretend they have something resembling American citizenship, and the United States government will pretend it’s a champion of democracy.


Hector Luis Alamos, Jr. is a Chicago-based writer. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.

Tell Us What You Think!
Loriane says:

CarlosRodriguez2 100% agree

FrankBurns2 says:

antfreire Have you ever been to the beach and noticed that all the waves are moving toward the shore? Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why that would be? Suppose you were on a shore on the other side?  Hmmm…

jlop28vislophis says:

Should criminals be in charge of correcting the wrong they
Puerto Ricans vote in
elections every 4 years at an 80% level of participation.Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United
States (US) government for the past 116 years.If the US government has the final say in what happens in Puerto Rico,
what is the purpose of these elections?The purpose is to fool the world that Puerto Rico is a democracy.
The United Nations (UN) declared
colonialism a crime against humanity in 1960.The UN has asked the US government 33 times to decolonize Puerto Rico
immediately.The US government has refused.It says that Puerto Rico’s political
relationship with the United States is none of the UN’s business.The US says that it is a domestic affair.
To appear that the US
government wants to decolonize Puerto Rico, it promotes the use of plebiscites
to determine what Puerto Ricans want.Doesn’t
that sounds innocent and democratic?So
what’s the problem?
To begin with, the
international community already rendered its verdict and determined that
colonialism is illegal.So to have a
political status option in a plebiscite that favors maintaining Puerto Rico a
colony of the United States is not permitted.To have a political status option of Puerto Rico becoming a state of the
United States is also not permitted under international law.The problem goes back to the beginning of
this article.In order to have free
elections, the country must be free.So
before these elections and plebiscite could be valid, Puerto Rico would have to
first be an independent nation.
What people must realize is
that Puerto Rico is a colony of the US because the US government wants it that
way.That is why it has used terrorism
to keep it that way.That is why it
refuses to release the Puerto Rican political prisoner of 33 years Oscar López
Rivera.That is also why it is
ridiculous to believe that decolonization is a US internal matter in which the
UN has no jurisdiction over.If we allow
the US government to decolonize Puerto Rico, she will remain a colony of the
United States forever!
José M López Sierra

antfreire says:

jlop28vislophis J Alejandro  You are so confused…..or are you trying to confuse us?  What will the World say if USA throws Puerto Rico away against the will of its people?  What will  happen it it disengage from Hawaii, or from Alaska? 
Please stop being a fanatic.  United Nations should now be concerned about Russia trying to swallow its neighbor republics against their  will.  But we Puerto Ricans are happy the way we are.  And even if you hate the idea, one day sooner will be a STATE.

jlop28vislophis says:

J Alejandro jlop28vislophis  You missed my point.  The United Nations (about 200 countries) already decided democratically that one country owning another country is a crime.  The only solution is for the government of the United States to stop being the owner of Puerto Rico.  Once that happens, the People of Puerto Rico can democratically decide what they will do.  Thanks for your comment!  Un abrazo, Jose

CarlosRodriguez2 says:

jamorenorivera Maybe for someone who lives without a patriotic identity.  Maybe you have allegiance to an ethnic tribe, but not to a country that has given much and occasionally demands a little…  Citizenship is not a “personal status” as if it were some kind of social media thing.  Try being stateless to see how much you take for granted.

jamorenorivera says:

As I understand it, citizenship is a personal status the benefit of which you enjoy sometimes more, sometimes less depending on where in the world you are at the moment.

antfreire says:

If millions and millions of Latin American citizens risk their life to get to live  in USA.  Why would Puerto Ricans refuse that benefit?

J Alejandro says:

jlop28vislophis That is well put. But a plebiscite at some point will have to take place to democratically determine the will of the people.

CarlosRodriguez2 says:

If you move to any of the states, you enjoy all the same protections of any other citizen, just as a US citizen born in a State who chooses to reside in Puerto Rico will enjoy the same limitations placed upon island natives who remain on the island.
This is not only misleading, it is an intellectually dishonest piece of opinion passing itself off as information.

JoseCorrea1 says:

Maybe some of the topics the author has pointed out are misleading but others are straight to the point .

JosephBrr says:

What can be done for a case of a guy from any latin american country go to Puerto Rico, get puerto rican nationality and after just jump for America being a true american citizen????
mexicans would love trying it.

jlop28vislophis says:

Dear Partner,
Since the United Nations determined in 1960 that colonialism
is a crime against humanity, there is no longer a need for plebiscites. The solution is to give Puerto Rico her
But being the United States government does not want to, it
continues to advocate the use of plebiscites to find out what Puerto Ricans
want.Even if 100% of Puerto Ricans
would want to continue being a US colony, Puerto Rico would still be obligated
to accept her sovereignty to then decide what she wants to do.
The only thing these plebiscites are good for is to divide
Puerto Ricans.A Puerto Rican didn’t
invade us to make us a colony.When will
we understand that we need to unite?
This is why we must peacefully protest at least 3 times a
year until Puerto Rico is decolonized!
José M
López Sierra

jlop28vislophis says:

Dear Partner,
After the approval of the 33rd United Nations’
resolution by consensus on June 23, 2014 asking the United States (US) to
immediately decolonize of Puerto Rico, we should work together to force the
United States government to comply with it.
The facts that the United States government has maintained
Puerto Rico as its colony for 116 years, has had Oscar López Rivera in prison for 33
years for fighting for Puerto Rico decolonization, and has ignored 33 UN
resolutions to decolonize Puerto Rico, confirm that the US government has no
intentions of ever decolonizing Puerto Rico.Therefore, we need to form a tsunami of people to force the US to comply
with the 33 resolutions.
We should peacefully protest at least 3 times a year until
we achieve our goal.The first one will
be a march up to the US Courthouse in Puerto Rico on the Abolition of
Slavery Day on March 22.The second
will be another march in Puerto Rico on a day before the UN’s Puerto Rico
decolonization hearing.The third one
will be a protest in New York City on the same day the UN holds its Puerto
Rico decolonization hearing.
These 3 protests are indispensable, because those who
have colonies don’t believe in justice for all.
José M
López Sierra

Timón del Pueblo
United Partners for the Decolonization of Puerto Rico

anavelez23 says:

Thank you!

anavelez23 says:

Are you kidding me…who the he’ll wrote this mindless fuck…Learn history please…SMH…

mqrdc says:

Hector Luis —

Interesting article, but you got some things wrong.

1. The Bill of Rights does apply to U.S. Citizens in Puerto Rico. The issue has been litigated.
2. The U.S. Supreme Court has also found that, for practical reasons, U.S. Citizenship by Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico is the same as U.S. Citizens on the mainland. Again, for PRACTICAL readons. It is clear that one citizenship is by right and the other by statute. 
3. Puerto Rican autonomy during the end of the Spanish Empire is similar to Puerto Rican autonomy today. Or Canadian autonomy IN THE PAST. Canada is no longer autonomous. It is independent.

4. Queen Elizabeth II is indeed the Queen of Canada and Canadian Head of State. However, she has this role INDEPENDENT of her role as Queen of the United Kingdom. In other words, Canada is not autonomous but a fully independent, sovereign nation state apart from the UK.  It is a Kingdom with Queen Elizabeth as its Queen. 

Canada’s only formal relationship with the UK as a former UK colony is being part of the Commonwealth of Nations, of which Queen Elizabeth is the head.

The UK is a union of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Queen Elizabeth is Queen of this “realm” as ONE unit.That’s why it’s four countries but one nation-state with ONE seat in the UN.

HOWEVER, she is also independently the Queen of countries like Jamaica and Australia.

And while she is the head of the Commonwealth of Nations, she is not Queen of all countries within such Commonwealth. Sri Lanka is just one example. 

Back to Puerto Rico. What you did get right is that as a territory and not a state, Congress can at any time cancel Puerto Rican autonomy.