Puerto Rico: United States Citizens Starting in 1917
written by: Rett Fisher
Puerto Rico sits close to 1,000 miles southeast of Florida. The island was given to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War in the year 1898. Two years later the U.S. set up a government for the island through a Congressional Act. President William McKinley inaugurated their first governor in San Juan that same year.
Nearly twenty years later, about four weeks prior to the U.S. entering World War I, the Jones-Shafroth Act was signed by then-President Woodrow Wilson, which made Puerto Rico an official territory of the United States and gave all residents United States citizenship. As an act of Congress it is not guaranteed under the Constitution, but would need a ruling in the Supreme Court in order to be overruled. Also, the act outlined a plan for a government much like the U.S. government is structured and made English the official language of the island, which didn’t sit well with many residents but was understandable from the United States’ perspective.
Many argue about the timing and motivations behind the granting of citizenship to Puerto Ricans to this day. Most Puerto Ricans thought that the Jones Act was created when it was so the island’s able-bodied men could be drafted to serve in the war. Because of the views of the new citizens, only a very few volunteered for the Army, but later around 20,000 were drafted and ended up serving in the war, mostly as guards for the nearby Panama Canal, which was very important for the United States’ war efforts. Others served on the Western Front, where one regiment was famously nicknamed Harlem Hell Fighters. The fact is that the Act was being talked about for a long period of time. Also, any male resident of the U.S., including those who lived in Puerto Rico, were available to be drafted and serve in the war, regardless of their citizenship.
While there is no doubt that for the most part Puerto Ricans enjoy the fact that they are United States’ citizens, there are still many who question why the Jones Act contains so many provisions and contradictions. Some of these contradictions are detailed below:
– While Puerto Rico and their government are essentially governing themselves, the President and their won governor have the right to veto any legislation their government comes up with.
– Basic government services are still run by the U.S. federal government. Puerto Rican residents basically got citizenship, but really gained nothing else in the deal. They are allowed to freely travel and live anywhere else in the U.S. They are not allowed to vote in Presidential elections unless they live in America and only have to pay federal taxes if living in America. Puerto Rico is allowed to hoist their own flag and field their own team at the Olympics, which they proudly do.
As stated earlier, many Puerto Ricans are proud of the fact that they are U.S. citizens, but at the time of the Jones Act, their representative in Congress stated that they would rather be Puerto Rican citizens. He was afraid that they would be seen as second-class citizens without the rights of those born in America, and he was partly right. Their civil rights have been violated several times, especially during the time around the 1940s and 1950s. Many people on the island continue to fight these fights and will until they die.
Since the citizenship of Puerto Ricans is not guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution, there will always be a debate about whether or not Puerto Rico should keep their U.S. citizenship or become Puerto Rican citizens. It has now been almost 100 years since the Jones Act and those from the great island of Puerto Rico still aren’t quite sure of their place in the world, or what the future will bring. There are now over 4 million residents of Puerto Rico, and they still lack full voting rights in Congress, but they do get to pay Social Security taxes and get welfare benefits. Puerto Ricans are a proud people in a beautiful country who want the same Constitutional rights the other citizens enjoy. Some call for statehood for the island, and chances are decent that they might someday get it.