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March 18, 1999

The San Juan Star
Monterrey Industrial Urbanization
5 Acacia Street
San Juan, Puerto Rico 00920-1511

Dear Editor:

        Recently, The San Juan Star published an article by Noel Pi–eiro entitled "Nothing is as permanent as U.S. citizenship" (Viewpoint, March 14, 1999), which stated that the distinction between constitutional and statutory citizenship is a "fabrication."

        Instead of confusing readers with dueling legal citations, we should let the U.S. Supreme Court speak for itself. For example, in the 1971 case of Rogers v. Bellei, the U.S. Supreme Court itself recognized the difference between constitutional and statutory citizenship when it stated that certain earlier citizenship decisions of the court, including some often cited in Puerto Rico, have been misunderstood because: "...these cases concerned persons who were born here, that is, persons who possessed Fourteenth Amendment citizenship; they did not concern a person, such as plaintiff Bellei, whose claim of citizenship is wholly, and only, statutory."

        For Puerto Rico it is important to note the Court also stated that Bellei had "acquired citizenship at his birth" under a federal statute, but that Congress had the power to impose conditions on statutory citizenship that can not be imposed on constitutional citizenship. Since the plaintiff in that case had not satisfied all conditions prescribed by Congress even after having been naturalized by statute, his citizenship was revoked. This resulted in denial of a U.S. passport and disqualification for service in the U.S. Armed Forces.

        One lesson of the Bellei case for Puerto Rico is that terms such as "natural born citizen," "born or naturalized in the United States,"and "citizen at birth" have well-established legal meaning under the U.S. Constitution as it applies by its own force in the states of the Union. The same terms can mean something entirely different as applied to Puerto Rico by federal laws enacted and subject to amendment at the pleasure of Congress.

        Thus, it is dangerously misleading to conclude that that so-called "collective naturalization" of Puerto Ricans in 1917 by federal statute, followed by a later federal statute that defined Puerto Rico as being part of the United States, gives Puerto Rico the same constitutional citizenship as those born in states of the Union. The fact that Puerto Rico, like Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands, may be designated by Congress to be part of the United States for purposes of current or previous federal nationality and immigration laws, or any other federal statutes enacted under the Territorial Clause, does not create vested constitutional rights or give the U.S. Constitution application in Puerto Rico by its own force.

        That is why the Congressional Research Service's legal opinion of March 9, 1989 concluded "...the limitation of... the Fourteenth Amendment would not restrain Congress from legislating about the citizenship status of Puerto Rico." Certainly, if Congress could take away statutory citizenship conferred by "at birth" on Mr. Bellei, it could end the conferral of U.S. citizenship by statute for persons born in Puerto Rico in the future.

        That is why the record before Congress on the question of Puerto Rico's status establishes that those with statutory citizenship have rights that Congress can not take away in an arbitrary way, but no one has established that there is any limitation on the power of Congress to end conferral of U.S. citizenship if it determines that Puerto Rico's ultimate status should be based on separate nationhood and sovereignty.

        It is not a scare tactic to inform the people of Puerto Rico of these limitations on our current U.S. citizenship. Rather, it is the failure to tell the truth about the power Congress has under the current status that erodes our right to self-determination and decolonization. Knowledge can only empower us to realize and secure for all time a dignified nationality and citizenship.




(s) Herbert W. Brown III


Herbert W. Brown III
Citizens Educational Foundation

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