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February 25, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

A Second Look at Second-Class Citizenship

Next Wednesday, March 2nd, will mark the 88th year of the promulgation of the Jones Act, the legislation that granted American Citizenship for all persons born in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico. Since 1917, this civil status for individuals, bestowed on them by the U.S. Congress, has permitted Puerto Ricans to enjoy the rights of any native or naturalized American – with several notable exceptions.

Puerto Ricans residing on the island have no representation in the U.S. Senate and no proportional representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Also, they are disenfranchised in the selection of a U.S. President every four years. For this reason, some Puerto Ricans refer to their U.S. Citizenship as "second-class" in nature, somehow of less quality than that of persons born in one of the fifty states. Others reject this idea as nothing more than political rhetoric intended to support one political status or another.

Virtually all Puerto Ricans covet their American citizenship and want to retain it for themselves and future generations. Even those wishing independence for Puerto Rico lobby for dual citizenship, should such a political status be realized. This can be seen in the glowing language accorded U.S. citizenship in platforms of the two major island political parties, the New Progressive Party (NPP) that favors statehood, and the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) that embraces the current status but lobbies for enhanced powers and more autonomy from the United States.

Both the PDP and NPP, which in recent years have together captured more than 95% of the local vote in elections and plebiscites, strongly support the maintenance of American citizenship for Puerto Ricans. Knowing how much voters cherish their U.S. Citizenship, politicians take every opportunity to herald it.

Currently, leaders of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), whose complaint is that the Commonwealth status is "second-class" because the Puerto Rican Government does not possess many of the powers of an independent country, are vociferous in defense of their citizenship. The present Governor, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, stated as much at a 1998 U.S. Senate hearing, "We should not be forced to give up our children's U.S. citizenship so that we can get a fuller measure of self-government."

His PDP predecessor in La Fortaleza, Sila Maria Calderón, whose administration was viewed as separatist by the Congressional leaders and the U.S. Department of State, told the Senate in 1998, "I have never felt like a second-class citizen. I consider myself a U.S. citizen. I appreciate and treasure my U.S. citizenship. I would never renounce or consider loosing that citizenship. I want my children and their children always to have it."

American citizenship came to Puerto Rico in a trade-off that Congress concocted almost two decades after taking possession of Puerto Rico and other former Spanish colonies at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Treaty of Paris, signed by the two warring powers, ceded former Spanish colonies Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippine Islands to the United States as territories. By the time of the Jones Act, Cuba had already been granted independence and a bloody insurgency opposed U.S. occupation in the Philippines. Puerto Rico was generally peaceful, cooperative and very poor.

In his 1995 definitive work on the subject, "Citizenship and the American Empire," José A. Cabranes, now a sitting Judge in the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, writes that the Jones Act was intended to send one message to the Philippines and another to Puerto Rico. Believing that the distant and hostile Philippines would never become a state, the act promised it eventual independence. On the other hand, the more pliant population of Puerto Rico, residing on an island in the strategically important Caribbean, required another approach.

By granting citizenship, Cabranes writes, "Congress proclaimed the future of Puerto Rico to be something other than national independence and thereby sought to resolve the question how the United States would deal with this part of its empire. The very word ‘citizenship’ suggested equality of rights and privileges and full membership in the American political community, thereby obscuring the colonial relationship between the great metropolitan state and a poor overseas dependency. But the creation of a ‘second-class’ citizenship for a community of persons that was given no expectation of equality under the American system had the effect of perpetuating the colonial status of Puerto Rico."

In the Puerto Rico Constitution of 1952, American citizens residing on the island were granted local self-government and limited autonomy but they remained in an unincorporated territory. The document somewhat changed the relationship of Congress with the island government but did not diminish its ultimate authority. Neither were the civil rights of Puerto Ricans expanded to include a voice and vote in the national government.

American citizenship has allowed Puerto Ricans to travel overseas on an American passport and to freely settle anywhere in the United States to pursue the life of their choice. As residents of a state of the union, they immediately begin to enjoy full suffrage in local, state and national elections. In effect, a plane ticket can give to a Puerto Rican civil rights that the Congress has so far refused to grant to those who remain on the island. Many have boarded planes. Demographers tell us that there is a net exodus of Puerto Ricans from the island to settle in mainland locations. Some predict that by the end of the decade, off-island Puerto Ricans will exceed the number living on the island.

Puerto Ricans have met the responsibilities of American citizenship in full measure. The island’s men and women have rallied to the defense of the flag in its wars and have served with distinction. Over 200,000 have served and some 2,000 have paid the ultimate sacrifice, and the number is growing. Since the beginning of hostilities in Iraq, some 7,600 troops from Puerto Rico have served in harm’s way and 24 soldiers with island addresses or roots in Puerto Rico have been killed, the most recent on February 18th.

In spite of the frustrations Puerto Ricans might have about their political status and regardless of any disappointment they feel in not being able to vote in mainland elections, the value of American citizenship seems not to be in question. The debate is joined on how to ameliorate the "second-class" nature of the passport that Puerto Ricans carry. Some hold that only statehood will end the perceptual problem. Others hold that the immediate right to vote for President will help. Still others refuse to consider the problem and view such characterizations as nothing more than political rhetoric.

How do you consider the American citizenship of Puerto Ricans residing on the island?

Please vote above!

This Week's Question:

How do you consider the American citizenship of Puerto Ricans residing on the island?

US . Residents
. PR
It is second-class citizenship

35% It is not second-class citizenship

6% No opinion



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