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99 years after the Jones Act: Austerity without representation

Ninety-nine years ago this week, Puerto Ricans became citizens of the United States. What does this anniversary signify? That depends a lot on who you ask (and be careful who you ask, since most Americans have no idea how or why Puerto Ricans became US citizens, or if they’re even citizens at all).

Just under a century after the Jones-Shaforth Act conferred US citizenship on residents of Puerto Rico in 1917, the island’s complicated legal and political relationship to the United States is once again under close scrutiny, with Puerto Rico’s economic survival hanging in the balance. And in a presidential election year, as Florida’s recent surge in Puerto Rican migrants—many of them voters—promises to shape election results in that swing state, the importance of Puerto Ricans’ US citizenship looks more momentous than ever. (The huge popular support for statehood in the 2012 status plebiscite—a possible if highly improbable future outcome that would change everything about both the island’s economic prospects and Puerto Ricans’ role in national politics—is another issue for another day.)

As we consider the legacy of the Jones Act, as it’s usually called, we should also review some facts.

Signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson in March 1917, the Jones Act served two objectives. First, it provided a system of civil government for the island the United States had taken as a prize of war following its victory against Spain in 1898. (The Spanish-Cuban-American war had begun as a fight for independence by Cubans and Puerto Ricans against Spain, which the United States joined, it claimed, in order to protect the liberty and sovereignty of its Caribbean neighbors.) The second purpose of the Jones Act was to secure US citizenship for Puerto Ricans, ensuring that the US constitution would “follow the flag” that was already flying over its new unincorporated territory.

The question of whether to extend US citizenship to Puerto Ricans had been debated by US jurists and politicians for almost two decades before it happened, and that debate was shot through with racism. Senator Chauncy Depew of New York insisted in 1900 that the United States could not “incorporate the alien races, and civilized, semi-civilized, barbarous, and savage peoples of these islands into our body politic as States of our Union.” In his last-ditch opposition to the Jones bill in 1916, Representative Joseph Cannon of Illinois warned that “the people of Porto Rico have not the slightest conception of self-government…Porto Rico is populated by a mixed race…fully 75 to 80% of the population…had an African strain in their blood.”

The citizenship question was also controversial in Puerto Rico. Most political leaders there had imagined, in 1898, that winning a war against Spain (with or without help from the United States) would result in an independent Puerto Rico—the achievement of political autonomy if not immediate and outright national sovereignty. Luis Muñoz Rivera, Puerto Rico’s first Resident Commissioner (the island’s non-voting representative in the US Congress), vehemently objected to the extension of US citizenship to his compatriots. “If we can not be one of your States; if we can not constitute a country of our own, then we will have to be perpetually a colony, a dependency of the United States. Is that the kind of citizenship you offer us? Then that is the citizenship we refuse.”

But of course Puerto Ricans could not refuse an Act of the United States Congress. The citizenship conferred on Puerto Ricans by the Jones Act was, and is, unequal to that possessed by residents of the mainland United States.

Puerto Ricans on the island, born US citizens, cannot vote in federal elections and have no proportional representation in Congress; the island’s single elected Resident Commissioner can vote in Congressional committee but can’t cast final votes on the House floor. A common explanation for this lack of representation is that Puerto Ricans don’t earn that voting power because they don’t pay federal taxes. But this is wrong. Puerto Ricans don’t pay personal federal income taxes, but they pay most other federal taxes mainlanders pay, including social security and Medicare taxes. They also pay a relatively hefty income tax to the Commonwealth government.

Such unequal terms make up the legal foundation of the relationship between Puerto Rican islanders and the United States. One of the few US officials to admit this fact—before the 1960s—was Rexford Tugwell, a New Dealer appointed governor of Puerto Rico by FDR in 1941. Reflecting on his governorship, Tugwell wrote that even after three decades of citizenship, “Americans generally did not come to think of Puerto Ricans as real citizens—rather, when they thought of them at all, as citizens of a sort of second class.”

Tugwell, it turned out, would be the island’s last non-Puerto Rican governor. In 1946, President Truman appointed legislator Jesús Piñero as the island’s first native governor, and then in 1948, Puerto Ricans elected the wildly popular Senator Luis Muñoz Marín, son of Luis Muñoz Rivera. Muñoz Marín shepherded the island through the legal transition to a Commonwealth (or Estado Libre Asociado) in 1952.

Nationalists violently opposed the status change, calling it “perfumed colonialism.” Puerto Ricans could pretend otherwise, they said, but they’d still be second-class citizens. These loud opponents of colonialism were joined in the 1960s by a growing base of radicalized young Puerto Ricans in the United States, whose critiques linked the injustices of colonialism on the island (and elsewhere in the world) with the racial prejudice and economic disadvantage they confronted as second- or third-generation Puerto Ricans growing up in American society.

Since that era, for at least the last fifty years, the anniversary of the Jones Act has been marked more often by protest than by celebration. And it’s not just nationalists and independentistas who focus on the injustices inscribed into law in 1917. One of the ironic legacies of the Jones Act is that opposing it brings together Puerto Rico’s staunchest political rivals, the left-leaning nationalists and the ideologically heterogeneous statehooders. First Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Juan Toruella, who supports statehood for Puerto Rico, has written that the Jones Act created “a citizenship clouded by legalistic ‘ifs,’ ‘ands,’ ‘buts,’ and footnotes.” A nationalist would say the same thing—but would just arrive at a different conclusion about how to fix that problematic citizenship.

For the moment, for once, the “status question” has been sidelined in public debate as the island confronts more pressing problems. After years of negative economic growth, declining incomes and employment, rising poverty rates (already much higher than on the mainland), and mismanagement, the island faces a catastrophic debt crisis. Puerto Rico’s leaders are struggling to make the case that the United States should restore island municipalities’ rights to Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, which were denied following a convoluted legal decision in the 1980s. The Jones Act anniversary in 2016 serves primarily as a reminder that lack of representation in the US Congress continues to exact a painful price.

Featured image credit: MODERN BUILDINGS TOWER OVER THE SHANTIES CROWDED ALONG THE MARTIN PENA CANAL – NARA – 546368 by John Vachon, US National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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