Are Puerto Ricans Immigrants in the U.S.?

Guitar player, street, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Dennis K. Johnson / Getty Images

The issue of immigration can be a hot topic of some debate, partly because it's sometimes misunderstood. Who exactly qualifies an immigrant? Are Puerto Ricans immigrants? No, they are U.S. citizens.

It helps to know some of the history and background involved to understand why. Many Americans mistakenly include Puerto Ricans with people from other Caribbean and Latin countries who come to the U.S. as immigrants and must petition the government for legal immigration status. Some level of confusion is certainly understandable because the U.S. and Puerto Rico have had a confusing relationship over the past century.

The History

The relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. began when Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the U.S. in 1898 as part of the treaty that ended the Spanish American War. Nearly two decades later, Congress passed the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 in response to the threat of American involvement in World War I. The Act gave Puerto Ricans automatic U.S. citizenship by birth.

Many opponents said Congress only passed the Act so Puerto Ricans would be eligible for the military draft. Their numbers would help bolster U.S. Army manpower for the looming conflict in Europe. Many Puerto Ricans did indeed serve in that war. Puerto Ricans have had a right to U.S. citizenship ever since that time.

A Unique Restriction

Despite the fact that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they are prohibited from voting in presidential elections unless they have established residency in the U.S. Congress has refused a number of attempts that would have allowed citizens who live in Puerto Rico to vote in the national races.

Statistics indicate that most Puerto Ricans are eligible to vote for president all the same. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the number of Puerto Ricans living "stateside" was about 5 million as of 2013—more than the 3.5 million living in Puerto Rico at that time. The Census Bureau also anticipates that the number of citizens living in Puerto Rico will drop to about 3 million by 2050. The total number of Puerto Ricans living in the United States has almost doubled since 1990.

Puerto Rico Is a Commonwealth

Congress granted Puerto Rico the right to elect its own governor and exist as a U.S. territory with commonwealth status in 1952. A commonwealth is effectively the same thing as a state.

As a commonwealth, Puerto Ricans use the U.S. dollar as the island’s currency and may serve in the U.S. armed forces. The American flag flies over the Puerto Rico Capitol in San Juan.

Puerto Rico fields its own team for the Olympics and it enters its own contestants in the Miss Universe beauty pageants.

Traveling to Puerto Rico from the United States is no more complicated than going from Ohio to Florida. Because it's a commonwealth, there are no visa requirements.

Some Interesting Facts

Prominent Puerto Rican-Americans include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, recording artist Jennifer Lopez, National Basketball Association star Carmelo Anthony, actor Benicio del Toro, and a long list of Major League baseball players, including Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina, Bernie Williams, and Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda.

According to the Pew Research Center, about 82% of Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. are fluent in English.

Puerto Ricans are fond of referring to themselves as boricuas in homage to the Indigenous people's name for the island. They are not, however, fond of being called U.S. immigrants. They are U.S. citizens except for the voting restriction.

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Your Citation
Moffett, Dan. "Are Puerto Ricans Immigrants in the U.S.?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 21, 2021, Moffett, Dan. (2021, February 21). Are Puerto Ricans Immigrants in the U.S.? Retrieved from Moffett, Dan. "Are Puerto Ricans Immigrants in the U.S.?" ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).