The citizenship quandary

There were a few Puerto Ricans working at the  CEESTEM (Centro de Estudios Económicos y Sociales del Tercer Mundo) where I was a researcher in the Asian division.  When asked about citizenship, one of them said, “I am a US citizen but I am not an American, I am Puerto Rican. Soy Boricua.” Puerto Rico’s pre-colonial name was Borinquen.   I am neither an American nor a US citizen, I am Filipino, was my response, but once upon a time, after a Treaty signed in Paris, we Filipinos were considered US nationals.

After the 1898 Treaty of Paris ceded the last three colonies of Spain to the USA for $20 million, the citizenship issue became a national quandary in America.  The inhabitants of the newly acquired territories, in particular Puerto Rico and the Philippines, were considered citizens of their respective homelands but, at the same time, they could no longer be classified as aliens or foreigners because the USA had jurisdiction over these territories. So, did Puerto Ricans and Filipinos automatically become US citizens?  The Supreme Court of the USA was in a quandary because the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”

But that was in 1868.  The Treaty of Paris signed in 1898 was silent about citizenship; it indicated that US Congress would determine the civil rights and political status of the natives of territories ceded by Spain to the USA.  Two years later, the US Congress passed the Foraker Act, which established a civilian government in Puerto Rico run by “citizens of Puerto Rico.”However, that did not make Puerto Ricans citizens of the USA, so existing ambiguities were not clarified.

There were a couple of landmark cases involving Puerto Ricans who were refused entry into the USA which resulted in confusing theories of “territorial incorporation” that made territories acquired in 1898 “domestic to the USA in a foreign sense,” in other words, “unincorporated” territories whose inhabitants were still considered aliens, depending on how the US Congress and the Supreme Court defined and interpreted those concepts. Apparently, the term “national” was applied to Puerto Ricans and Filipinos because it sounds more democratic than “subject” and, therefore, more diplomatic.

Needless to say, the citizenship imbroglio was a legal device to conceal deeply rooted prejudices, especially racial ones, against native populations that the USA considered “uncivilized” and “incapable of self-government.” During the negotiations of the Treaty of Paris, the matter of “uncivilized native tribes” (found only in the Philippines, they said) was brought up whenever citizenship was discussed.  That was not at all surprising because, at that time, even Native American Indians were not citizens of the USA. Although they were born within territorial limits, the Native Americans were designated as “quasi-sovereign” and classified as “domestic dependent nations.”   Only in 1924, after a quarter of a century, were the original inhabitants of America conferred citizenship by virtue of the   Indian Citizenship Act.  How ironic!

When Philippine independence was restored in 1946, Filipinos ceased to be nationals but were not granted US citizenship; moreover, stringent measures were imposed on Filipino immigrants. In contrast, Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship as early as 1917, but their country remains an associated territory of the USA; many Puerto Ricans have been imprisoned for subversion because they are still fighting for the independence of their country.

(Source: Ibid) (