Understanding the Complex Citizenship of Puerto Ricans: A Journey Through History, Rights, and Identity

The question of whether Puerto Ricans are considered U.S. citizens can be a topic of confusion for many people. To clear up any misconceptions, it is important to understand the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States as well as the historical context that has led to the current status of Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens.

One key piece of legislation responsible for this status is the Jones Act of 1917, which collectively naturalized the citizens of Puerto Rico as U.S. citizens. However, it is essential to note that while Puerto Ricans are indeed considered U.S. citizens, they do not possess all of the same rights and privileges as those born in the mainland United States. Puerto Rico is classified as an organized, unincorporated territory, which means that although it is self-governing, it does not possess the full scope of constitutional law applicable to the states in the United States. As a result, there may be discrepancies in rights and policies between Puerto Ricans and other U.S. citizens.

In conclusion, Puerto Ricans are indeed classified as U.S. citizens, but they don’t have all the same rights as citizens born in the mainland United States. Understanding this distinction is crucial when discussing or debating the political and legal implications of the unique relationship Puerto Rico shares with the United States.

Historical Context

Treaty of Paris

The Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10, 1898, ended the Spanish-American War and marked a turning point in Puerto Rico’s history. As a result of the treaty, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, along with Guam and the Philippines, to the United States. This change in sovereignty had a significant impact on the island and its people, as Puerto Ricans went from being Spanish citizens to experiencing a new political relationship with the United States.

Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War was a conflict between Spain and the United States in 1898, which led to the significant geopolitical changes in Puerto Rico’s status. The war began as a result of the United States’ intervention in Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain. As the war expanded, the United States targeted other Spanish territories, including Puerto Rico. The successful invasion of Puerto Rico by American forces during the war set the stage for the island’s future political relationship with the United States.

Foraker Act

In 1900, the United States Congress passed the Foraker Act, which established a civil government for Puerto Rico. The Act provided for a governor and executive council appointed by the U.S. president, a House of Delegates elected by the people of Puerto Rico, and a judicial system. However, Puerto Ricans were still not considered American citizens and did not have full political rights.

Jones-Shafroth Act

The Jones-Shafroth Act, signed into law on March 2, 1917, granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans. This provided them with some political rights, including the ability to serve in the U.S. military. The Act also reorganized Puerto Rico’s government, transitioning it from a purely colonial administration to a more autonomous structure, although the island remained a U.S. territory.

World War I

Following the passage of the Jones-Shafroth Act, Puerto Rican men became eligible for the U.S. military draft. Approximately 18,000 Puerto Ricans served in World War I, with many of them recruited for the war effort. Their service further enmeshed Puerto Rico in the United States’ political and military affairs, solidifying the relationship between the two entities.

Puerto Rican Citizenship and Rights

U.S. Citizenship

Puerto Ricans have been considered American citizens since the Jones Act was passed in 1917. This granted citizenship to individuals born in Puerto Rico, allowing them the same rights and protections as those born in the mainland United States.

Fourteenth Amendment

Since Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not automatically apply to the island. This means that the Citizenship Clause in the amendment, which grants citizenship to individuals born within the United States, does not extend to Puerto Ricans by default. However, the Jones Act effectively made the Fourteenth Amendment applicable to Puerto Ricans by granting them U.S. citizenship.

Civil Rights

Despite being U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans in the territory do not enjoy all the same rights as individuals living in U.S. states. Some key differences include:

  • No voting representation in Congress
  • No electoral votes in U.S. presidential elections
  • Limited access to certain federal benefits

However, Puerto Ricans are still entitled to basic civil rights, such as free speech, due process, and equal protection under the law. More information on the civil rights of Puerto Ricans can be found here.


As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are eligible for U.S. passports and can travel freely to and from the mainland United States without the need for visas. This also allows Puerto Ricans to take advantage of the same passport privileges that other U.S. citizens enjoy when traveling internationally.

Political Status

Organized, Unincorporated Territory

Puerto Rico is classified as an organized, unincorporated territory of the United States. As a territory, it lacks the sovereignty of an independent nation and is not considered a U.S. state. This political status affects the rights and benefits of its residents.

Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

In 1952, the establishment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico granted the territory some level of internal self-governance. With its own constitution, Puerto Rico is allowed to exercise a certain degree of autonomy in local governance. However, it’s still subject to the authority of the U.S. Congress.


Statehood is an alternative political status that has been discussed and voted on several times by Puerto Ricans. Although they are natural-born U.S. citizens, residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections unless they reside in one of the 50 states. Becoming a state would grant Puerto Rico full representation in the U.S. Congress and allow residents to vote in presidential elections. However, statehood has not yet been achieved.


Another potential route for Puerto Rico’s political future is independence from the United States. As a sovereign nation, it would no longer be subject to the authority of the


Taxation and Government Benefits

Federal Income Taxes

Puerto Ricans are US citizens, but their tax obligations differ from those living in the mainland United States. They don’t pay federal income taxes on income generated within the island, except for federal employees, the military, or individuals earning mainland US-based income.

Payroll Taxes

Residents of Puerto Rico also pay payroll taxes, which include Social Security and Medicare contributions. These contributions help determine the benefits Puerto Ricans receive in the future.

Social Security and Medicaid

Despite contributing to Social Security and Medicare, Puerto Rico residents face disparities in terms of coverage and access to these services. For example, Puerto Ricans on average receive lower Social Security benefits than their counterparts in the 50 states.

The federal government also funds Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program at a lower rate compared to states, leading to financial challenges for the island’s healthcare system. This results in limited access to some healthcare services for many residents.

Supplemental Security Income

When it comes to Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a recent Supreme Court ruling confirmed that Congress can exclude Puerto Rican residents from receiving these benefits, which are available to eligible individuals in the 50 states. The 8-1 decision further highlights the disparities in federal benefits for Puerto Rico residents compared to those on the mainland.

Although Puerto Ricans are US citizens, they do not enjoy equal access to some federal benefits and tax obligations compared to those living in the 50 states. This situation has created discrepancies in healthcare, social security, and income support for the island’s residents.

Military Service and Draft

Puerto Ricans’ participation in the U.S. Armed Forces began when the island became a US territory. In 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act was signed, making Puerto Rico a U.S. territory, and granting Puerto Ricans statutory citizenship, which in turn made them eligible for the draft. Shortly after gaining citizenship, Puerto Ricans were recruited for the U.S. efforts in World War I.

As statutory citizens, Puerto Ricans have contributed significantly to the U.S. military throughout the decades. The island has played an especially important role in defending America’s military and economic interests in the Atlantic and Latin America region (source).

In Puerto Rico, military service has served different purposes for the individuals involved. For many, it has been an escape from poverty or a path to education and middle-class status (source). Additionally, after World War II, serving in stateside U.S. armed forces facilities and their families allowed for the expansion of the Puerto Rican diaspora.

While Puerto Ricans are proud of their contributions to the U.S. military, their citizenship status remains a complex and contested issue. Despite being U.S. citizens, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory, leading to a situation where the island is governed as a separate and unequal territory (source).

Migration and Residency

Moving to the Mainland

Puerto Ricans are US citizens, which allows them to freely move between Puerto Rico and the mainland United States. As US citizens, they do not face immigration restrictions that other immigrants do. However, there are certain rights and policies that differ for Puerto Ricans compared to US-born citizens, due to Puerto Rico’s status as an organized, unincorporated territory.

Bona Fide Resident Status

To qualify as a bona fide resident of Puerto Rico, an individual must meet specific criteria:

  • Be present in Puerto Rico for at least 183 days during the tax year
  • Not have a tax home outside Puerto Rico during the tax year
  • Not have a closer connection to the United States or a foreign country than to Puerto Rico

Meeting these requirements allows individuals to benefit from Puerto Rico’s tax laws and regulations, which may offer tax advantages compared to the mainland United States.


As US citizens, Puerto Ricans do not need to go through the naturalization process to obtain US citizenship. They automatically receive citizenship at birth. However, they may choose to obtain Puerto Rican citizenship, which has been affirmed by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico.

Living in Puerto Rico

Life in Puerto Rico is a blend of American and Puerto Rican culture, offering a unique experience for residents. While they enjoy the benefits of being US citizens, Puerto Ricans also have their distinct culture, language, and lifestyle. Being a self-governing territory, Puerto Rico has its own governance structure, including its governor, legislative assembly, and courts. However, it remains under the overall jurisdiction of the United States, and federal laws and regulations apply to Puerto Rico.

Culture and Identity


Puerto Rico has a rich linguistic history, leaving residents with a unique mix of Spanish and English. The development of language in Puerto Rico shapes their identity, granting them the flexibility to identify as Puerto Rican, American, or Puerto Rican American. Spanish remains the primary language spoken in Puerto Rico, but English is also widely understood and spoken due to the island’s status as a U.S. territory.


Puerto Ricans received U.S. citizenship 100 years ago, allowing them to identify as American citizens. However, the island’s status as an organized, unincorporated territory means they don’t have all the same rights as U.S. born citizens. For example, Puerto Rico is self-governing, without automatic constitutional law placed on them. Despite this, many Puerto Ricans value and embrace their U.S. citizenship while also maintaining strong connections to their unique cultural heritage.

Cultural Influence on the Mainland

Puerto Rican culture has had a significant impact on the mainland United States. This is particularly evident in areas with a high population of Puerto Ricans, such as New York City and Florida. Puerto Rican influences can also be seen in American music, dance, and food.

  • Music: The sounds of Puerto Rico, including salsa, bomba, and plena, have made their way into mainstream American music.
  • Dance: The vibrant and lively dances of Puerto Rico, such as salsa and reggaeton, have become popular in dance clubs and social events across the U.S.
  • Food: Puerto Rican cuisine, which combines Spanish, African, and indigenous Taíno influences, can be found in many American cities, especially San Juan-inspired dishes like mofongo and alcapurrias.

In conclusion, the culture and identity of Puerto Ricans is deeply rooted in their unique history and experiences as both Puerto Ricans and U.S. citizens.

Recent Developments

Economic Crisis

Puerto Rico, a U.S. Territory, has faced an economic crisis over the past few decades. Between 2004 and 2020, the island’s annual economic growth fell by roughly 12.5 percent, leading to a shrinking population by more than 16 percent. The territory has struggled with a large public debt, making it difficult for the government to invest in necessary infrastructure and social services.

Hurricane Maria

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, causing widespread devastation and further exacerbating the island’s economic and infrastructure crises. The hurricane significantly damaged the island’s electrical grid, transportation systems, and housing, leading to slow recovery efforts, with some areas still struggling to fully recover.

Current Political Climate

The current political climate in Puerto Rico is characterized by debates over the island’s status as a U.S. territory and calls for statehood. Like other U.S. territories such as the Virgin Islands and Guam, Puerto Rico’s citizens are American citizens but lack full representation in the U.S. Congress and the right to vote in presidential elections.

In recent years, the island’s governance has seen changes following popular protests demanding the resignation of the Governor. The Biden-Harris Administration has shown support for Puerto Rico’s recovery and renewal, with the Small Business Administration (SBA) delivering a record-setting $5.2 billion in aid for Puerto Rican entrepreneurs to rebuild, recover, and pivot from the effects of COVID-19 and the hurricane.

Overall, Puerto Rico’s recent developments have been shaped by economic challenges, natural disasters, and political change. The U.S. government’s support and investment in the island will play a crucial role in shaping its future.

Related posts