Historical Overview

The United States annexed Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898 and has since selectively governed the island as an unincorporated territory or a territory not destined for statehood. The initial territorial status was invented by the Department of War, subsequently normalized by Congress, and later given constitutional legitimacy by the Supreme Court in a series of rulings generally known as the Insular Cases. Puerto Rico’s territorial status has not changed in more than a century.

Since the United States acquired Puerto Rico, the Senate ratified one treaty containing a citizenship provision. Congress has debated upwards of 102 bills containing citizenship provisions for the island and enacted at least ten laws with citizenship provisions for Puerto Rico. The latter laws provide for the extension of four different types of citizenships, namely a Puerto Rican citizenship (1900-1934); individual naturalization (1906-1940); collective naturalization (1917-1940); and birthright or jus soli citizenship (1941 to the present).

Presently, there are at least two interpretations of the status of Puerto Rican-born citizens shaping the contours of the debates. In 1989, some academics, law and policymakers began to argue that Puerto Rican-born citizens acquired a mere statutory citizenship and were subject to the plenary will or authority of Congress. Alternatively, in 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice released a memorandum arguing that Puerto Rican-born citizens acquired an irrevocable U.S. citizenship. To this extent, the story of the extension of U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico remains unresolved and subject to competing interpretations.