Citizenship! What Is It Good For?

Is the American flag flying higher than the Puerto Rican flag? Or is it… a matter of perspective?

I work at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, a center at Tufts University devoted to advancing people’s participation in their communities and in democracy. (The views expressed here, and always, are my own.) It used to be called the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. A few years ago we changed the name, for several reasons. Perhaps chief among them was a concern that the word “citizenship” evoked increasingly rancorous debates about immigration, and alienated undocumented individuals and their allies.

I like the new name, but I remain unconvinced by that particular argument for the change in moniker. I’ll admit that, in part, it’s a reactionary impulse: I don’t like people telling me what words I can and can’t use. But I have other objections. For one thing, there’s no small irony in the fact that so many of those who would pooh-pooh the word are fighting to obtain the very thing that it describes. More crucially, I believe there’s something important and valuable about the covenant between a government and its people — with all of its attendant rights and responsibilities — that is best (and perhaps only) captured by the word citizenship. And I worry that by forgoing the term we weaken the idea, with perhaps unpredictable consequences.

We Puerto Ricans think about our American citizenship a lot. For some, it’s the perfectly natural legal component of an American identity that they feel is their proud birthright. For others (*raises hand*) it is an accident of history; the product of another country’s political decision-making and an ongoing reminder that there’s a difference between citizenship and nationality. I suspect for others still it’s merely synecdochical, with their American passport serving as the physical manifestation of an arguably overstated sense of security and convenience.

What’s less arguable is that, for decades, the preservation of American citizenship has been at the center of pro-statehood and even pro-status quo arguments against Puerto Rican sovereignty. Never mind that it’s a second-class citizenship with limited representation and voting rights. Surely, the thinking goes, that’s still better than a (not so hypothetical) Puerto Rican citizenship, which after all sounds a little too banana-republicky. American citizenship, meanwhile, is the great guarantor of aid and protection from the most powerful nation on Earth. Even if the rights and responsibilities are a little iffy, it places us in that covenant with the United States government in a way that we logically wouldn’t be without said citizenship — and, one would assume, that other non-citizens likewise cannot enjoy.

The destruction caused by Hurricane María, and the unquestionably halting (when not outright incompetent) federal response that has hampered recovery efforts, are testing the limits of that hypothesis. After all, if Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, American citizenship and all, can’t prevent a full-blown economic collapse and a major humanitarian crisis, what exactly is it good for? Still, the idea that the U.S. government has a responsibility to its citizens — at least in theory — is alive and well. It’s rare to find an article about Puerto Rico’s situation that doesn’t include the phrase “Puerto Ricans are American citizens,” usually meant as an exhortation. It’s just that once they’re done sharing the article on Facebook with a mean comment about the Trump administration, nobody seems to care.

Why not? A few months ago I advanced an explanation based on that distinction between nationality and citizenship:

I get that, technically [Puerto Ricans are American citizens]. But that’s technically with a ginormous capital ‘T’ and all 10 other letters too. We may share a common citizenship, but that’s a legal abstraction that confers on [Puerto Ricans] some rights and imposes on [the U.S.] government some responsibilities; it cannot compel some dude in Nebraska to feel a sense of national kinship with a guy from Arecibo, and to consider him his countryman.

I stand by that theory. But I have another one.

I am not the only one who’s noticed the ubiquity of statements about citizenship on articles about Puerto Rico. Over at Quartz, Jed Gottlieb writes: “Puerto Ricans deserve aid not because they are Americans, but because they are humans.” That’s a nice bit of panhumanist kumbaya — until you think about it for more than three seconds and ask: “aid from whom?” Surely “the American citizens of Puerto Rico” deserve, or deserve to expect, more help from the United States than from Argentina, or France, or China — just as any citizen of those nations should expect precedence from their own. Surely a government is under greater obligation to its people than to all other humans. If only there were some legal status or framework that would allow us to determine to whom that precedence extends…

As I write this on February 8, Luis Gutiérrez and Nydia Velázquez, two Democratic members of Congress of Puerto Rican descent who have banged the drum loudest about the need for greater aid to the Island, announced that they would not vote for a budget deal even though it reportedly includes more than $15 billion for Puerto Rico. They oppose the bill, not because the amount of aid is grossly insufficient (it is), but because it does not include legislation to support the so-called Dreamers — young undocumented immigrants with jobs and college degrees who are at risk of deportation.

I would not minimize the peril in which Dreamers and all undocumented individuals find themselves. Their situation is heartbreaking and important in its own right. But, in at least one crucial respect, having garnered the attention of national politicians and the American public, they’ve got Puerto Ricans beat. And one wonders if it occurs to those who consider it unconscionable that Dreamers should be sent back to crime-ridden countries with scant economic opportunity, that through their indifference they allow Puerto Rico to remain just such a place.

Of course, I understand the realpolitik behind the legislators’ decision, which is but a symptom of their party’s and their country’s political priorities. Nor am I unaware that this was a bit of posturing on a bill that was destined to pass anyway. But what leaders choose to posture about matters. I am not so naive as to expect a government shutdown or an eight-hour floor speech from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi over Puerto Rico. But, if I were so naive, I might question just why the fate of more than a million non-citizens is of greater concern — not just in Washington, D.C., but in the hearts and minds of most Americans — than that of more than three million American citizens in Puerto Rico.

Perhaps in their solidarity with immigrants, and in their battle against right-wing nationalists who would wield it as a tool for exclusion and bigotry, American liberals have too hastily abandoned the very notion of citizenship and Puerto Ricans are merely collateral damage. Perhaps in their rush to reject “America first,” they have unwittingly placed some Americans last. Whatever the reason, add this to the long list of absurdities about Puerto Rico’s status: as American citizens, we matter less to America than those who aren’t its citizens at all.




Writer/editor. Communications Specialist. Supporter of Puerto Rican Independence.

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Alberto Medina

Alberto Medina

Writer/editor. Communications Specialist. Supporter of Puerto Rican Independence.

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