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José Rodríguez-Suárez

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Karl Rove's "Real Americans"

Posted: 02/23/2012 5:45 am

Clearly, the positions that presidential candidates take on Puerto Rico issues will influence the increasingly important group of voters of Puerto Rico origin in the 50 States. However, presidential candidates may not have realized that what they say about Puerto Rico can also have a significant impact on Hispanic voters in general.

First and foremost, Hispanics wish to be acknowledged as Americans --that, despite our origin, we are a part of "We the People of the United States." As an immigrant rights advocate, Julissa Reynoso pointed-out that "to many Americans, Latinos' roots are in Latin America and Mexico, as though having some connection with Latin America trumps any possibility of becoming a 'true' U.S. citizen." Karl Rove was keen to recognize the problem of "Hispanicness" being associated to foreignness regardless of citizenship and stated before the National Council of La Raza that the debate over immigration reform had "clouded the views of some people in America and led them to fail to understand that Hispanics, and all immigrants, are real Americans."

Nothing captures the essence of this problem more clearly than Balzac v. People of Porto Rico, a little-known case that the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1922. Most Americans would not conceive of the Supreme Court making decisions about the application of the Constitution on the basis of race or origin. But that is precisely what was done in this case.

When in 1917 Congress granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, it was generally understood that the Islands had been incorporated into the United States. But, five years later, the Supreme Court decided that an American citizen residing in Puerto Rico did not have the right of trial by jury under the Sixth Amendment because it could not have been the intention of Congress to "incorporate in the Union these distant ocean communities of a different origin and language from those of our continental people."

The communities to which the Court made reference were Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Despite the fact that Congress granted American citizenship to the inhabitants of Puerto Rico after having set the Philippines on the path to independence in 1916, what mattered to the Court was not citizenship but origin.

In a glaring act of judicial law-making the Supreme Court disavowed Congress and departed from the precedents of Louisiana and Alaska in which granting citizenship to its inhabitants resulted in incorporation. The basis for making a distinction with Puerto Rico was, in essence, its Hispanic population.

The opinion in Balzac was written by Chief Justice Taft. He had been Governor of the Philippines and had lost his 1912 reelection bid to Woodrow Wilson who signed the Jones Act granting American citizenship to Puerto Ricans. Taft's bias is plain to see when one considers that, as Governor, he referred to the Filipinos as our "little brown brothers" and reported to President McKinley that they would need "fifty or one hundred years" of close supervision "to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills."

As President, Taft had also referred to Puerto Rico as "the favored daughter of the United States". But discrimination on the basis of race or origin, however benevolent or paternalistic, is still incompatible with the Constitution.

Balzac is to the American citizens of Puerto Rico what Plessy v. Ferguson was to African Americans before Brown v. Board of Education. And thus, Balzac should be condemned by every American who understands the Constitution as a source of equal rights. Moreover, Balzac should be offensive to all who believe that judges overstep their constitutional authority when legislating from the bench.

It is incomprehensible that, after four generations of American citizens born in Puerto Rico, Balzac still provides grounds for The White House to assert that Puerto Rico is an "unincorporated" territory --a possession that is separate from, rather than a part of, the United States.

It is long overdue that a U.S. President asks his Attorney General to challenge the validity of Balzac whenever the application of the anachronistic "incorporation doctrine" is argued before a federal court. Ninety-five years ago on March 2nd President Wilson signed into law the Jones Act. March 11th marks the anniversary of the report by the President's Task Force on Puerto Rico. And Puerto Rico's Republican primary will be held on March 18th. Those are ideal junctures for a candidate to pledge that as President he will seek the reversal of Balzac. In so doing, he would acknowledge Puerto Ricans, and all Hispanics, as "real Americans."

Hispanics are not connected by ancestry to the signers of the Declaration of Independence or the framers of the Constitution but, because they share with them the principles and values on which our Nation was founded, they are equal to them in citizenship and entitled to claim those documents as their own. This we believe today as much as Abraham Lincoln believed it of recent immigrants in 1858. But while Balzac is "good law," no one can claim it is truly so.