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Puerto Ricans are indeed U.S. citizens

After the terrible hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico, there have been lots of references to people of that country (?) being U.S. citizens. I don't doubt that, but wonder how that came to be?

— Bev, Medford

Puerto Ricans are indeed U.S. citizens, Bev, even though Puerto Rico is not technically part of the United States. Here's a bit of history lesson (thanks to history.com, among others):

Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States in 1898 by Spain as part of the treaty ending the Spanish-American War. Congress created a civilian government for the island in 1900, and in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, under which Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory and Puerto Ricans were granted statutory citizenship.

Statutory citizenship means the citizenship was granted by an act of Congress and not by the Constitution. The act also created a bill of rights for the territory and separated its government into executive, legislative and judicial branches.

There may have been a bit of an ulterior motive in the Jones-Shafron Act, as Puerto Ricans also became eligible to be drafted for World War I — and in fact, 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted. Nearly 50,000 islanders served with U.S. forces in the Vietnam War.

The treaty with Spain also ceded the island of Guam and "sovereignty" over the Philippines. The Philippines gained full independence after World War II, while Guam remains an "unincorporated territory" whose residents are also U.S. citizens.

Puerto Rico became a U.S. commonwealth in the 1950s, meaning it has its own government but remains tied to the United States. Because they are citizens, Puerto Ricans can freely come and go between their island and the 50 states, and U.S. citizens can visit Puerto Rico without a passport. Puerto Ricans also can move to any of the 50 states without an immigration application.

Puerto Rico has a representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, but the representative has no vote. Islanders are eligible for some, but not all, federal benefits, including partial Medicaid coverage. They are assessed U.S. payroll, Social Security and Medicare taxes. But they do not pay federal personal income taxes.

In recent decades, Puerto Ricans have argued both for total independence and for statehood. In June, more than 90 percent of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood in an advisory vote that drew a turnout of only 23 percent of registered voters. Granting statehood to the island requires approval from the U.S. Congress, many of whose members are lukewarm to the idea after the commonwealth declared bankruptcy just prior to that June vote.

Then again, the island's $73 billion debt would tuck neatly into a small corner of the $20 trillion owed by the United States.

— Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.