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Federal Court Says Congress Decides Citizenship Not Puerto Rico

The nation's second highest court recently repeated that the U.S. Congress, not Puerto Rico, makes decisions about the citizenship and nationality of persons born in Puerto Rico.

In the case of Alberto Lozada Colon v. Secretary of State, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit declared that one cannot renounce his United States citizenship while remaining a citizen of Puerto Rico. Like the trial court, the appellate court rejected Lozada Colon's claim that Puerto Rico is entitled to decide issues of citizenship and national status. In so doing, the federal court effectively nullified the recent decision of the Puerto Rican Supreme Court in the Juan Mari Bras case (see related article below).

Lozada, an avowed supporter of Puerto Rican independence, traveled to the Dominican Republic, where he filed an application for a Certificate of Loss of Nationality with the U.S. Embassy. Learning that Lozada intended to reside in Puerto Rico, the Department of State did not recognize Lozada's loss of nationality. Lozada then sued to try to force the Department of State to recognize his renunciation of U.S. citizenship. Lozada did all this while living in Puerto Rico.

At the trial court level Judge Stanley Sporkin, of the United States District Court of the District of Columbia, rejected Lozada's request, noting that Puerto Rico is a part of the United States for the purposes of citizenship and nationality. The trial court found that Lozada had not truly renounced his U.S. citizenship since he continued to live in Puerto Rico, part of the United States. The judge said, while claiming to renounce all rights and privileges of United States citizenship, [Lozada ] wants to continue to exercise one of the fundamental rights of citizenship, namely the right to travel freely throughout the world and when he wants to, to return and reside in the United States.

After losing at the trial court, Lozada appealed to the D.C. Circuit. In response to Lozada's appeal, the United States Government argued strenuously in support of the trial court's finding that the creation of the Commonwealth system of government did not change Puerto Rico's status as a territory of the United States. The U.S. Government succinctly and clearly reiterated the simple statement that Puerto Rico remains a territory subject to the plenary power of Congress.

In a very short decision, the D.C. Circuit affirmed Judge Sporkin's reasoning and denied Lozada's appeal. The court made clear that the U.S. Congress makes decisions about the nationality and citizenship of the people of Puerto Rico. Under federal law, Puerto Rico, like a State of the Union cannot bestow a citizenship apart from that of the United States.

The court's decision in Lozada does not say that Puerto Ricans cannot renounce their U.S. citizenship. Like all U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can renounce their U.S. citizenship, but they must understand that, without U.S. citizenship, they have no right to travel to or reside in Puerto Rico. Like citizens of foreign nations, Puerto Ricans who renounce their U.S. citizenship must obtain a visa or otherwise comply with the U.S. immigration laws before returning to Puerto Rico, a State of the Union, or any other place subject to the reach of U.S. immigration laws.


A short time ago, independence supporters trumpeted a Puerto Rico Supreme Court decision and crowed that Puerto Rico had a citizenship and nationality apart from that of the United States. In the case of Ramirez v. Mari Bras, the Puerto Rican Supreme Court ruled that Mari Bras could vote in Puerto Rico elections despite the fact that he had renounced his United States citizenship. Reacting quickly, the federal government soundly rejected the reasoning of the Puerto Rico court. The result is that the federal government has completely mooted the Mari Bras decision and demonstrated the limits of the commonwealth system of government.

Following the reasoning it adopted in denying a Certificate of Loss of Nationality to Alberto Lozada Colon (see accompanying article), the U.S. Department of State withdrew the Certificate of Loss of Nationality it had issued to Mari Bras. Because Mari Bras continued to reside in Puerto Rico, the U.S. government determined that Mari Bras had not intended to renounce his U.S. citizenship. Had Mari Bras truly renounced his U.S. citizenship, he would be required to obtain a visa or other travel authorization to visit Puerto Rico, just as anyone else would who is not a citizen of the U.S. Such a person would be subject to all the restrictions placed on aliens by the Immigration and Nationality Act, including a prohibition against working in Puerto Rico without the authorization of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

It was clear that Mari Bras did not intend to comply with the law as it applies to non-U.S. nationals. He continued to live and work in Puerto Rico in a manner that is lawful only if he is a U.S. citizen. Accordingly, the Department of State found that he had not effectively renounced his U.S. citizenship, and Mari Bras remains a citizen of the U.S.

Now the federal courts have removed any doubt about Puerto Rico's right to claim its own citizenship and nationality. In the case of Lozada Colon, the courts reasserted that Congress makes the decisions about Puerto Rican citizenship and nationality. In doing so, the courts adopted the federal government's simple statement that Puerto Rico remains a territory subject to the plenary power of Congress. By affirming that the U.S. Congress defines nationality and sovereignty for the people of Puerto Rico, the federal courts showed that it makes no difference what the Puerto Rican Supreme Court says about citizenship or nationality. The Puerto Rican court may have the authority to decide whether Juan Mari Bras can vote in Puerto Rico elections, but it cannot ignore controlling federal law to declare Mari Bras a lawful resident of Puerto Rico.

The federal government has demonstrated the truth about Puerto Rican sovereignty by repudiating the Mari Bras precedent. No matter what the Puerto Rican Supreme Court says, no Puerto Rican is permitted to travel outside the U.S., renounce U.S. citizenship and return to live in Puerto Rico. The commonwealth's supreme court could not even do that for Mari Bras himself. When the federal government informed him that he had not effectively renounced his U.S. citizenship, Mari Bras decided, apparently, to live as a U.S. citizen. He has not traveled abroad to remain as a stateless alien or to obtain a visa to return to Puerto Rico.

In the end, the lesson of Mari Bras is that the United States government is sovereign over Puerto Rico and that any change in Puerto Rico's sovereignty status (including declarations of nationhood or separate citizenship) must involve both the people of Puerto Rico and the federal government in a constitutionally authorized self-determination process.

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