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  April 22, 2002

Panel: Residents of Puerto Rico
Treated as Second-Class Citizens
By Allison Thompson

All U.S. citizens are not treated equally, and in the case of those citizens living in Puerto Rico, that means being denied access to basic rights that others take for granted. The differences in how U.S. citizens living in the 50 states and those living in Puerto Rico are treated was the focus of a colloquium, "When Citizenship Is Not Enough: Human Rights in U.S.-Puerto Rico Relations," held on April 11 in Konover Auditorium.

Under U.S. law, people born in Puerto Rico are American citizens. With almost four million residents, Puerto Rico is larger than many mainland states. If it was considered a state instead of a commonwealth, Puerto Rico would be about the 25th largest state.

Christina Duffy Burnett, a visiting scholar at Princeton University's program in law and public affairs, noted that citizenship has three basic rights: the right to citizenship itself, protection from deportation, and the right to vote. She said people who live in Puerto Rico don't have these rights.

"People who live in Puerto Rico are second-class citizens," she said.

For instance, Puerto Rico doesn't have any representation in the federal government and Puerto Ricans can't vote in U.S. presidential elections.

"This is citizenship that doesn't even meet the most basic assumptions of citizenship," Burnett said.

Despite Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. territory, the U.S. doesn't deny Puerto Rico's right to declare independence, and the island is sometimes recognized as a separate entity when it comes to international dealings. That makes Puerto Rico's situation uncertain, and that uncertainty is infused in its citizens as well, she added.

"The situation Puerto Rico finds itself in now is nationhood without nationhood, and citizenship without citizenship," Burnett said.

According to Carlos Dalmau, who works in the Office of the Puerto Rican Commissioner in Congress, the three popular narratives regarding Puerto Rico are to frame it in terms

of statehood, independence, or a commonwealth. It's possible to find support for each of the three, but the question of which one is right remains unanswered, said Dalmau, noting that he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the Puerto Rican government.

Part of the problem in Puerto Rico is that the will of the people is fragmented, Dalmau said. The common ground in all three narratives is that national identity and a sense of self have translated not into a desire to be independent but into a desire to be something other than a state, he added.

The key in determining Puerto Rico's future is consent, Dalmau said. "Self-determination is the free will of the people."

Right now, there is no consensus about what Puerto Rico's citizens want, but it's important to discuss the situation and possible resolutions.

"I think we are in a deadlock right now," Dalmau said. "We have to have this type of dialogue openly and without party politics."

The discussion was sponsored by the Puerto Rican & Latino Studies Institute, the Puerto Rican/Latin American Cultural Center, and the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.

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