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.

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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.

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

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