The Jones Act made Puerto Ricans citizens, yet not fully American

It has been 101 years since the residents of Puerto Rico, which is neither a U.S. state nor an independent country, were collectively naturalized as U.S. citizens under the Jones Act of 1917. But this particular citizenship created contradictions and led Puerto Ricans to feel something less than fully American then — and now.

Puerto Ricans cannot vote for the U.S. president when they live in the territory, but they can when they reside in one of the 50 U.S. states or the District of Columbia. And in crisis — notably during Puerto Rico’s 2017 bankruptcy, and the federal response to the devastation of the island by Hurricane Maria — the inequality of Puerto Rico is often exposed, and questions are asked again about the Jones Act.

Chief among them: What did the Jones Act actually do?

To understand the Jones Act, it is best to start with a clarification of what the law was not.

It was not the first congressional statute conferring U.S. citizenship on persons born in Puerto Rico. It was not the last such statute. And the law did not change Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory. But the Jones Act, in its collective extensive of American citizenship to Puerto Rico residents, proved to be crucial glue, cementing enduring relationships between residents of Puerto Rico and of the United States.

In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States annexed Puerto Rico, without extending or even promising to extend U.S. citizenship to the island’s inhabitants.

President McKinley opposed granting citizenship to the “less civilized” non-Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Puerto Rico and the other annexed Spanish territories. Instead, Section Nine of the Treaty of Paris, which outlined terms of the annexation, invented a local “nationality” that required Puerto Ricans to establish a new allegiance with the United States, while simultaneously barring their membership in the U.S. political community.

But the Puerto Rican citizenship invented for Puerto Rico clashed with various federal citizenship and nationality laws. For example, the prevailing passport law of the period limited the issuance of passports to U.S. citizens, so Puerto Rican merchants who sought to travel found themselves unable to acquire a U.S. passport. In response to this and other administrative problems, Congress in 1906 began to enact legislation granting individual Puerto Ricans the ability to acquire U.S. citizenship by traveling to the mainland and undergoing the prevailing naturalization process. In effect, Puerto Ricans were able to acquire citizenship individually, just like any other racially eligible immigrant. This was the first law granting Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship.

But it wasn’t enough. Between 1900 and 1917, Congress debated upward of 30 bills containing citizenship provisions for Puerto Rico, recognizing that it was an eventuality. Among their chief concerns was not binding Congress to grant statehood to the island.

Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, the debate centered on whether the residents of the island would acquire U.S. citizenship via individual or collective naturalization. This reflected a larger, longer-term discussion over whether Puerto Rico’s future should be one of independence from the U.S. or of an autonomous entity within the U.S. or of statehood.

The Jones Act of 1917 included a citizenship provision that incorporated the local partisan debates over the manner in which citizenship was extended to Puerto Rico. The first clause of this citizenship provision granted individual Puerto Rican citizens a choice between retaining their status quo or acquiring U.S. citizenship. Only 288 Puerto Ricans chose to retain their Puerto Rican citizenship. The second clause collectively naturalized island-born Puerto Ricans residing in the island who chose not to retain their Puerto Rican citizenship. Two additional clauses granted different types of alien residents the ability to acquire U.S. citizenship by following simple legal procedures within various time frames. In the end, most Puerto Rican citizens residing in the island acquired U.S. citizenship by simply doing nothing.

Congress subsequently amended the citizenship provision of the Jones Act on three occasions over the next two decades, eventually replacing it with the Nationality Act of 1940, which said birth in Puerto Rico was now tantamount to birth in the United States. But even though the Nationality Act settled questions of citizenship, it did not deal with the larger questions of the island’s territorial status or its political future — issues still clearly unsettled today.

Charles R. Venator-Santiago is an associate professor in political science at the University of Connecticut. He wrote this piece for Zócalo Public Square (zocalopublicsquare.org).

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