The Indignity of a False Citizenship

Self-Induced Statelessness in Puerto Rico

In: Tilburg Law Review
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  • 1 1Donald M. Wilson Fellow, Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, International Strategic Litigation Unit

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This article will explore the history and legacy of attempts to advocate for independence in Puerto Rico via the renunciation of United States (US) citizenship. The US acquired Puerto Rico over a century ago, and Puerto Ricans gained US citizenship in 1917, but the island remains an unincorporated territory. Various options, including independence and statehood, have been debated for decades. While voting records show that only a small percentage of the Puerto Rican population supports full independence from the United States, many pro-independence activists spurred debate by renouncing their US citizenship and claiming that they are citizens of Puerto Rico only. This raised questions as to whether they actually became stateless as a result. One of the most notable independence activists, the late Juan Mari Brás, caused confusion at the US State Department, which initially accepted his renunciation of US citizenship only to reverse its decision three years later. A discussion of the multifaceted meaning of ‘citizenship’ in the context of Puerto Rico illuminates the United States’ approach to the international right to a nationality.

  • 2

    Ibid 17; Danica Coto, ‘Puerto Rico Seeks to Define Its Relationship to US’ Associated Press (4 November 2012) <> accessed 9 September 2013.

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  • 13

    Organic Act, Ch 191, 31 Stat 77 (1900) (Foraker Act) s 7 (emphasis added).

  • 16

    192 US 1, 13 (1904) (citizens of Puerto Rico were neither United States citizens nor aliens). See also 77 FAM 1120 (n 9) 3.

  • 17

    Ch 145, s 5, 39 Stat 951, 953 (1917); 77 FAM 1120 (n 9) 9. A 1934 statute clarified that US citizenship should only be conferred on persons born in Puerto Rico who would otherwise be stateless; thus, acquisition of a foreign nationality in any manner, including by automatic operation of foreign law, would keep a person born in Puerto Rico from benefiting from US citizenship. However, the 1940 Citizenship Act broadened the provisions so that the law was not only aimed at preventing statelessness but rather extended US citizenship to all persons born on the island, regardless of whether they had a second nationality. 77 FAM 1120 (n 9) 11-12.

  • 24

     See Dennis Hevesi, ‘Juan Mari Bras, Voice for Separate Puerto Rico, Dies at 82’ New York Times (11 September 2010) D8.

  • 59

    Hannah Arendt, ‘The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man’ in The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1948) 267-304.

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