Let’s celebrate federalism on July 25
By Gregorio Igartúa
American citizen-residents of Puerto Rico are confused about their legal and political status in relation to their nation. This confusion is complicated by several factors, including: the ignorance of many politicians; the conflicting opinions of local and federal courts; and, particularly, by the insistence of some leaders of the Popular Democratic Party that Puerto Rico has a political relationship with the United States that does not fit legally within the U.S. Constitution.
The answer to our political dilemma can be traced and found by evaluating and comparing how the United States Congress has legally and politically disposed of Puerto Rico with the requirements it imposed on the former territories to qualify as states. In 1787, the Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance, which established the requirements for territories west of the Ohio River to become states. These requirements included: a defined geographic area, a minimum population, an organized republican form of government (legislature, judicial branch and a governor), and the appointment of a resident commissioner to Congress (incorporation). If one compares what Congress has done legally and politically with Puerto Rico since 1898 with the above requirements, one can conclude that Puerto Rico has gradually been moved by Congress to a federalist relationship equal to that of the Northwest Territories (the most assimilated territory ever to be like a state).
Puerto Rico was acquired in 1898 by the United States as a territory by the Treaty of Paris, which provided in part that the civil and political rights of the native inhabitants of the territories ceded to the United States would be determined by Congress. Since then, it has gradually assimilated Puerto Rico, with the consent of its American citizens, to be like a state. In 1898, 99.9% of the citizens signed to become U.S. nationals, renouncing their Spanish citizenship.
In the year 1900, Congress approved the Foraker Law, which organized the government of Puerto Rico into three branches: the executive, the judicial, and the legislative, as in the states.
In 1917, through the Jones Act, American citizenship was granted to its residents. Fewer than 1,000 residents out of a total of 1 million declined American citizenship. In 1947, Congress extended the “same privileges and immunities clause to Puerto Rico” (U.S. Const. Art. IV-2).
In 1948, Congress authorized the first popular election of a governor. An act of Congress in 1951 reaffirmed American citizenship by birth retroactive to 1941.
In 1952, the American citizens of Puerto Rico adopted a Constitution, as authorized by Congress, providing for a government with an executive, judicial, and legislative branch, in compliance with Article IV, Section 4 of the United States Constitution, as states have. The new Constitution was adopted to govern our internal affairs. It was ratified by Congress through an act signed by the president of the United States. In the preamble, the American citizens of Puerto Rico swear their allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, affirm their irreversible permanent union with the United States, and freely and voluntarily submit to the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, as states are in a federalist relation. The U.S. Constitution is applicable in all cases in local courts.
U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico are under the jurisdiction of the three branches of the federal government. The U.S. Census operates in Puerto Rico as in the states. The 2020 Census reflected 3.3 million inhabitants in Puerto Rico, which qualifies us to have seven electors in presidential elections, two senators and five representatives to Congress. The citizens of Puerto Rico have demonstrated their loyalty to the nation by serving with dedication, distinction and honor in the armed forces, in all armed conflicts since 1917. All income from sources outside of Puerto Rico is subject to federal taxes. Puerto Rico contributes more than $5 million annually to the U.S. Treasury from various sources of income, an amount greater than that of some states.
All of the foregoing constitutes evidence that the American citizens of Puerto Rico have exceeded the requirements of the Northwest Ordinance, in such a way that the United States Congress can and must certify us as an incorporated territory in transit to statehood. (Consejo de Salud, Opinion of Appellate Judge Gustavo Gelpi). (See also, R. Hernandez Colon, The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico: Territory or State. P.R. Bar Journal 207 (1959).
We have more than enough reasons to celebrate federalism in Puerto Rico on July 25, the day we completed all the requirements to be a state, and to claim all our rights as American citizens, to be able to vote in federal elections, as in law and justice is our democratic right to have government by consent.
Gregorio Igartúa is an attorney with a practice in San Juan.