In his memoirs, Bernardo Vega recounts how sometime in 1916 he enrolled in a local public school in New York city and tried to argue with his teacher that his Puerto Rican citizenship barred him from acquiring a naturalized citizenship. One night, the teacher talked about the naturalization process in the U.S. and explained that immigrants were required to renounce their loyalty to a sovereign or citizenship in order to begin the naturalization process. Vega argued that unlike his Hungarian and German classmates, Puerto Rican citizens were unable to comply with this requirement and were therefore unable to naturalize. Like many Puerto Ricans unfamiliar with the history of the extension of U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico, Bernardo Vega was wrong.
As early as 1906, Congress enacted legislation permitting individual insular or island-born Puerto Ricans to acquire a U.S. citizenship via naturalization. More precisely, in 1906 Congress began to pass laws enabling individual Puerto Rican citizens to undergo the naturalization process available to aliens in order to acquire a U.S. citizenship. Many Puerto Ricans took advantage of these laws and acquired a U.S. citizenship over a decade before the enactment of the Jones Act of 1917, the law providing for the collective naturalization of Puerto Rico’s inhabitants.
The United States Constitution contains two citizenship provisions only, namely the Naturalization Clause (U.S. Constitution, Article I, §8, cl. 4) and the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Naturalization Clause authorizes Congress to enact laws permitting the individual and/or collective naturalization of aliens and non-citizen nationals born outside of the United States. Congress has also enacted legislation providing a derivative form of parental or jus sanguinis (blood right) citizenship for the children of U.S. citizens born outside of the United States. However, because the U.S. Constitution does not contain a jus sanguinis citizenship clause, Congress has historically treated this form of derivative parental citizenship as a form of naturalization. For most of the United State’s history, naturalization laws were primarily written to grant citizenship to white Europeans. Alternatively, the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment confers a jus soli or birthright citizenship on most persons born in the United States. This clause also authorizes Congress to provide for the naturalization of aliens. It is important to note, however, although born in the United States, Native Americans, and the children of foreign diplomats, have been excluded from the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment. In sum, the Constitution confers a naturalized citizenship to most persons born outside of the United States and a birthright of jus soli citizenship to persons born within the United States borders.
The use of a Puerto Rican citizenship to govern the island’s inhabitants created a number of legal and administrative problems for the U.S. government’s colonization efforts. For example, the prevailing U.S. passport law barred the State department from issuing a passport to non-citizens effectively grounding Puerto Ricans in the island and throughout the world from being able to travel. Likewise, the U.S. civil service law of the period limited employment in the U.S. government to citizens barring the employment of Puerto Ricans in the local government agencies. Although Congress subsequently enacted a separate law creating a special exception for Puerto Ricans and other insular-born inhabitants to acquire passports, by 1906 Congress decided to enact legislation enabling individual Puerto Ricans to acquire a U.S. citizenship via naturalization.
In 1906 Congress enacted the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization Act (BINA) enabling persons born in Puerto Rico and the other insular territories to undergo the naturalization process and acquire a U.S. citizenship. Section Thirty established:
That all the applicable provisions of the naturalization laws of the United States shall apply to and be held to authorize admission to citizenship of all persons not citizens who owe permanent allegiance to the United States, and who may become residents of any State or organized Territory of the United States, with the following modifications: The applicant shall not be required to renounce allegiance to any foreign sovereignty; he shall make his declaration of intention to become a citizen of the United States at least two years prior to his admission; and residence within the jurisdiction of the United States, owing such permanent allegiance, shall be regarded as residence within the United States within the meaning of the five years' residence clause of the existing law (BINA, 34 Stat. 596, 606-607).
In other words, Puerto Rican citizens were no longer required to renounce an allegiance to a sovereign in order to comply with the naturalization requirements. In addition, unlike aliens residing in Puerto Rico who could naturalize in Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican citizens could count their residence in Puerto Rico as residence in the United States, but were required to travel to the mainland to undergo the naturalization process. For the purposes of the BINA of 1906 Puerto Ricans were treated as white aliens, eligible to naturalize under special circumstances. As public naturalization records available in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) show, many Puerto Ricans residing throughout the United States took advantage of this law.
Between 1906 and 1914 or the 59th and 63rd Congresses, lawmakers debated at least 30 bills containing citizenship provisions for Puerto Rico. The main debate centered on the question of whether the residents of Puerto Rico should be collectively naturalized or subject to individual naturalization procedures. It is important to highlight, however, that by 1914, Congress had reached a consensus on the language and scope of H.R. 14866, the bill that became the Jones Act of 1917. To be sure, the Jones Act not only copied the language of H.R. 14866 but it would also be approved with relatively little debate.
Expanding the Scope of the BINA
In 1914, Congress amended the BINA of 1906 and provided Puerto Rican soldiers in the U.S. Revenue-Cutter Service (Coast Guard), Navy and Marines the ability to treat their years of service as a form of residence in the United States for naturalization purposes. Soldiers serving in the U.S. armed forces were not required to be citizens and Puerto Ricans had been enlisting in large numbers since 1898. The Naval Service Appropriations Act of 1914 (NSAA) provided that:
Any alien of the age of twenty-one years and upward who may, under existing law, become a citizen of the United States, who has served or may hereafter serve, for one enlistment of not less than four years in the United States Navy or Marine Corps, and who has received therefrom an honorable discharge or an ordinary discharge, with recommendation for reenlistment, or who has completed four years in the Revenue-Cutter Service and received therefrom an honorable discharge or an ordinary discharge with recommendation for reenlistment, or who has completed four years of-honorable service in the naval auxiliary service, shall be admitted to become a citizen of the United States upon his petition without any previous declaration of his intention to become such, and without proof of residence on shore, and the court admitting such alien shall, in addition to proof of good moral character, be satisfied by competent proof from naval or revenue-cutter sources of such service: Provided, That an honorable discharge from the Navy, Marine Corps, Revenue-Cutter Service, or the naval auxiliary service or an ordinary discharge with recommendation for reenlistment, shall be accepted as proof of good moral character: Provided further, That any court which now has or may hereafter be given jurisdiction to naturalize aliens as citizens of the United States may immediately naturalize any alien applying under and furnishing the proof prescribed by the foregoing provisions (NSAA, 38 Stat. 392, 395).
This provision treated Puerto Ricans and other insular-born soldiers as aliens for naturalization purposes. The new amendment made it possible for Puerto Rican soldiers to use their military service as a vehicle to acquire a U.S. citizenship.
It is important to note that in 1915 a Federal District Court in Maryland affirmed the ability of Puerto Rican soldiers to use their service as a vehicle to naturalize. Socorro Giralde, born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico and recently honorably discharged from the U.S. Revenue-Cutter Service, submitted a petition for naturalization in a U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. Subsequently, in In re Giralde (1915) the Federal government challenged his petition arguing that Puerto Ricans were not aliens for the purposes of the NSAA of 1914. Writing for the Court, Judge John C. Rose rejected this challenge on four grounds. First, Judge Rose argued for a loose interpretation of the word alien that could include Puerto Ricans. Second, Judge Rose argued that the Supreme Court established in Gonzales that Puerto Ricans were racially eligible to naturalize and acquire a U.S. citizenship. Third, while he acknowledged that the U.S. military did not have a general citizenship requirement, Judge Rose argued that the intent of the law was to enable the naturalization of non-citizens who both “faithfully served the flag” and were qualified to become citizens. Citizenship, Judge Rose noted, was also a precondition for “increased pay.” Finally, Judge Rose concluded that if the BINA of 1906 enabled Puerto Ricans to acquire a U.S. citizenship, why would the NSAA of 1914 bar Puerto Rican soldiers from naturalization?
In sum, individual Puerto Ricans were eligible to naturalize and acquire a U.S. citizenship more than a decade before the enactment of the Jones Act of 1917. As Secretary of War Stimson suggested in 1912, both the BINA of 1906 and the NSAA of 1914 made it possible for individual Puerto Ricans to acquire a U.S. citizenship. More importantly, a survey of available public naturalization documents demonstrates that Puerto Ricans were using these laws to naturalize and acquire a U.S. citizenship long before the enactment of the Jones Act of 1917. More importantly, a significant number of Puerto Ricans born in Puerto Rico prior to 1940 were forced to undergo individual naturalization processes until 1948.