Puerto Rico's fight to escape "second-class citizenship"
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Puerto Rico's fight to escape "second-class citizenship"

In the epic story of the ongoing struggle to resolve certain aspects of Puerto Rico’s political identity, there’s a protagonist whose name is unknown to most Americans on the mainland — unless you happen to be an attorney or judge, in which case the name Gregorio Igartúa may be all-too-familiar.

Since 1994, Igartúa, an attorney from the Puerto Rican city of Aguadilla, has been applying his legal expertise to the major issue of representation and participation for Puerto Ricans in federal politics, filing no fewer than five lawsuits against the United States itself.

Though each suit has resulted in a dismissal, with Supreme Court lawyers denying a writ of certiorari and observing  that Igartúa’s arguments “do not warrant this Court’s review” because they “fail on their own terms” and are rooted in “basic errors” of constitutional interpretation. However, Igartúa has not been dissuaded.

“Every time I lose a case,” he says, “there’s still momentum, and that’s what motivates me to keep going.”

In fact, Igartúa has just entered a new class action suit in San Juan’s federal district court, this time demanding that President Obama, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, and Secretary of the U.S. House of Representatives, Karen Hass, make provisions for the election of five Puerto Ricans to U.S. Congress.

The fight for “first-class” citizenship

To understand Igartúa’s odyssey, one must have a basic grasp of Puerto Rico’s unique political relationship with the United States, a relationship that Juan R. Torruella, a Puerto Rican judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, has referred to as a “status of second-class citizenship.”

After acquiring Puerto Rico as a spoil of the 1898 Spanish-American War, the U.S. took a somewhat laissez-faire approach to managing the island, which had previously been a colonial holding of Spain. For almost 20 years, the status of Puerto Rico and its residents was unclear.

In 1917, the U.S. government finally decided to establish some terms of the neocolonial relationship, granting Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. However, they could not lay claim to many of the rights and privileges of that status. Chief among the rights and privileges that were not available to Puerto Rican residents: voting in federal elections and benefiting from congressional representation.

In plain English, what this means is that despite being American citizens, Puerto Ricans can only vote in primaries, not in presidential elections, and while they have a “resident commissioner” who represents their interests in Washington, D.C., this person has limited influence. The resident commissioner is a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, but has no vote on the House floor. Puerto Rico has no senators or representatives allocated for the island in Congress.

What Igartúa wants — what has driven his legal battle over the past 20 years — is full representation and the right to vote.

Confusion, constitutionality, and cowardice

For those off the island, Puerto Rico’s “second-class citizenship” is confusing or sometimes a complete mystery. For many who live on the island, the status of partial citizenship is a source of frustration, a circumstance that has still not been resolved after nearly a century of debate.

Lawyers and justices who have been involved in Igartúa’s cases say the issues are based on clear-cut matters of constitutionality that cannot be challenged unless an amendment is passed.

According to the United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit’s 2011 response to Igartúa’s motion, Puerto Ricans are prohibited from being granted full voting rights because Puerto Rico is not a state.

“The text of the Constitution defines the term ‘State’ and affords no flexibility as to its meaning,” wrote the judges in their final opinion on the case. Thus, “[v]oting rights for the House of Representatives are limited to the citizens of the states absent constitutional amendment to the contrary…. [T]he U.S. Constitution does not give Puerto Rico residents the right to vote for members of the House of Representatives because Puerto Rico is not a state.”

Be that as it may, Igartúa fully believes that if politicians on the island and off it would take up the cause to which he has devoted so much of his own energy and resources, the issue of representation could be resolved.

“Why do Puerto Rican politicians like Nydia Velázquez [a Congresswoman who represents New York’s seventh congressional district] worry about the rights of illegal Mexicans but don’t even concern themselves with their fellow Puerto Ricans?” Igartúa asks. He accuses politicians, both on the island and off, of cowardice when it comes to confronting the issue of representation.

“No tienen los pantalones,” he says in exasperation.

Puerto Rico’s Don Quixote

Despite confusion, arguments about constitutionality, and cowardice, Igartúa is hardly deterred from continuing to agitate for representation. Hope springs eternal, so Puerto Rico’s Don Quixote will continue to pursue his mission, regardless of the obstacles.

Maybe this time, he says, his years of effort will finally pay off.