The act of signing a petition is inherently American. It suggests that your voice has power to influence your representatives in government. You boldly exercise this protected right, and do so in the spirit of American democratic values: justice, liberty and prosperity. With unmistakable resolve, more than 500,000 of you repeatedly expressed the same plea to our Nation: Puerto Ricans are Americans, and right now they need our help.
But what does being an American citizen mean to the roughly 3.5 million people currently overcoming tremendous challenges in Puerto Rico? You may be surprised to learn that, under current law, American citizens in Puerto Rico share the same status as enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay. That’s because they’re both unincorporated territories of the U.S., and under the Constitution, citizens there can be legally discriminated against by congress.
Yet, we know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a living person in Puerto Rico who can recall a time when the American flag did not wave over the island. Since 1917, more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. military in every conflict since World War I. Thousands have died to protect our freedoms. Yet, despite our more than a century-long courtship, Puerto Rico remains a literal legal “possession” of the U.S. and American citizens there have little influence on the laws that govern them.
Simply put, an American who leaves their residence in Puerto Rico and moves to any State on the mainland, would benefit from every “civil, social and political right” provided under the Constitution. (1) If that same American citizen moved to Puerto Rico, suddenly the federal government could lawfully obstruct their rights “so long as there existed a rational basis for such action.” (2) This unequal treatment under the law was based on the perception of Puerto Ricans as being culturally primitive and intellectually inferior. (3) For example, in 1922 the Supreme court held it was lawful to deny Jesus M. Balzac a jury trial, a Constitutional right under the Sixth Amendment, because this right was not guaranteed to unincorporated territories. In his opinion, Chief Justice Taft reasoned that this was fair because Puerto Ricans would find it too difficult to grasp the concept of a fair trial by jury:
“The jury system postulates a conscious duty of participation in the machinery of justice which it is hard for people not brought up in fundamentally popular government at once to acquire.” (3)
I point this out, not perpetuate racial divisions, but to highlight the tremendous gap between the rights of Americans on the mainland and in Puerto Rico, and the antiquated views upon which this disparity is based.
While the scope of this petition remains limited to a request for DHS and the President to extend the waiver of Jones Act provisions, the core of the issue rests with offering Puerto Rico an equal opportunity to recover and rebuild. For principles of fairness to prevail, our federal government must acknowledge Puerto Rico’s current legal status is inconsistent with our fundamental democratic values -- and make efforts to change it.
(1) Consejo de Salud Playa de Ponce v. Rullan, 586 F. Supp. 2d 22, 26–45 (D.P.R. 2008).
(2) Califano v. Torres, 435 U.S. 1 (1978) (referring to the denial of supplemental social security benefits to an American citizen who relocated from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico)
(3) Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298, 312 (1922).