Resource

Puerto Rican Citizenship

The opinion of the court in the case of Isabel González that determined that Puerto Ricans were not immigrants.

Document Text

Summary

This is an appeal by Isabella Gonzales from an order of the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York dismissing a writ of habeas corpus issued on her behalf and remanding her to the custody of the United States Commissioner of Immigration at the Port of New York. Isabella Gonzalez asks the court to release her from prison.
Isabella Gonzales, an unmarried woman, was born and resided in Porto Rico, and was an inhabitant thereof on April 11, 1899, the date of the proclamation of the Treaty of Paris. She arrived at the Port of New York from Porto Rico August 24, 1902, when she was prevented from landing, and detained by the Immigration Commissioner at that port as an “alien immigrant” in order that she might be returned to Porto Rico if it appeared that she was likely to become a public charge. Isabella Gonzalez is an unmarried Puerto Rican woman. When she arrived in New York, she was not allowed to enter the country. Immigration officials believed that she is likely to have to rely on government assistance.
If she was not an alien immigrant within the intent and meaning of the Act of Congress entitled “An Act in Amendment to the Various Acts Relative to Immigration and the Importation of Aliens under Contract or Agreement to Perform Labor,” approved March 3, 1891, 26 Stat. 1084, c. 551, the commissioner had no power to detain or deport her, and the final order of the circuit court must be reversed.

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Under the law, she should not be considered an immigrant so she could not be deported.
By section 7 [of law passed by Congress in 1900], the inhabitants of Porto Rico who were Spanish subjects on the day the treaty was proclaimed, including Spaniards of the Peninsula who had not elected to preserve their allegiance to the Spanish Crown, were to be deemed citizens of Porto Rico, and they and citizens of the United States residing in Porto Rico were constituted a body politic under the name of The People of Porto Rico. According to the law, people who lived in Puerto Rico when it became an American territory became part of the American political system.
Gonzales was a native inhabitant of Porto Rico and a Spanish subject, though not of the Peninsula, when the cession transferred her allegiance to the United States, and she was a citizen of Porto Rico under the act. And there was nothing expressed in the act, nor reasonably to be implied therefrom, to indicate the intention of Congress that citizens of Porto Rico should be considered as aliens and the right of free access denied to them. Citizens of Puerto Rico should be recognized as American citizens, not foreign nationals.
Counsel for the government contends that the test of Gonzales’ rights was citizenship of the United States, and not alienage. We do not think so, and, on the contrary, are of opinion that, if Gonzales were not an alien within the act of 1891, the order below was erroneous.

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The ruling that Isabella Gonzalez was an immigrant was therefore incorrect.
We think it clear that the act relates to foreigners as respects this country, to persons owing allegiance to a foreign government, and citizens or subjects thereof, and that citizens of Porto Rico, whose permanent allegiance is due to the United States, who live in the peace of the dominion of the United States, the organic law of whose domicil was enacted by the United States and is enforced through officials sworn to support the Constitution of the United States, are not “aliens,” and, upon their arrival by water at the ports of our mainland, are not “alien immigrants” within the intent and meaning of the act of 1891. People who live under American rule should be considered American citizens.

Gonzales v. Williams, 192 US 1 (1904). US Supreme Court.

Background

Isabel González was born in Puerto Rico in 1882. In 1898, the Spanish-American War broke out in Cuba. The United States joined the war for Cuban independence from Spain. The conflict expanded to other Spanish colonies, including Puerto Rico and the Philippines. After just 10 weeks, the United States was victorious, and Spain ceded Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the United States. The following year, 17-year-old Isabel married and gave birth to a daughter.

Isabel’s husband died of tuberculosis in 1902. At the time, Isabel was pregnant with her second child. She made the difficult decision to leave her daughter with her parents and find work in New York. When Isabel arrived at Ellis Island, she was denied entry to the United States. In 1891, Congress passed a law that required all pregnant women who entered the United States to prove they were married. The U.S. government wanted to prevent immigrant women from relying on public assistance. The officials decided to deport Isabel, but she fought back. Isabel claimed that as a resident of Puerto Rico, she was not an immigrant and should not face deportation.

About the Resources

Isabel sued the U.S. government to stay in the mainland United States. And she believed Puerto Ricans should be recognized as citizens. The Circuit Court of the United States for the District of New York ruled against her. The judge argued she was not born a U.S. citizen and had not been naturalized. Therefore, she was an immigrant. In addition, all other residents of Puerto Rico and the Philippines arriving in the United States were also immigrants.

Isabel and her lawyer appealed her case to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, they wrote letters to The New York Times to attract attention and gain public support for her case. Isabel González used the letters to show that she was not a vulnerable woman like the courts and the media portrayed her. She pointed out the hypocrisy of Americans. She criticized the United States government for claiming it liberated Puerto Rico from Spain and argued it was acting like a colonizer.

This is an excerpt from the final opinion of the Supreme Court in 1904. The court ruled that the immigration officials should not have treated Isabel as an immigrant. However, they also ruled that Puerto Ricans were not citizens of the United States. Thirteen years later, the United States designated Puerto Rico as a territory through the Jones Act of 1917. From that point on, the United States recognized Puerto Ricans as citizens.

Vocabulary

  • allegiance: Loyalty.
  • appeal: Official request to have a decision changed.
  • body politic: All the people of a country. 
  • cession: Give up rights to a territory.
  • circuit court: A court that covers multiple locations within a larger district.
  • deport: To remove a non-citizen from a country, usually by sending them to their home country.
  • domicile: A person’s home or residence.
  • dominion: An area under control by a certain leader or government.
  • erroneous: Wrong; incorrect.
  • hypocrisy: Pretending to have beliefs that you do not have.
  • inhabitant: A person who lives in a certain area.
  • peninsula:  An area of land that is almost completely surrounded by water.
  • public assistance: Government help in the form of money or services for people in need.
  • public charge: Someone who has to rely on public assistance to survive.
  • subjects: Residents of an area or country.
  • Treaty of Paris: The 1898 treaty between Spain and the United States that ended the Spanish-American War. Spain agreed to give up several of its territories. Puerto Rico and the Philippines became part of the United States and Cuba became independent.
  • writ of habeas corpus: Legal document that orders the government to prove that an arrested person should be held in custody.

Discussion Questions

  • Why did Isabel González argue that she should be allowed entry to the mainland United States?
  • What ruling did the Supreme Court make? What arguments did they provide to support their ruling?
  • Isabel González was a pregnant teenager when she arrived at Ellis Island. How did that influence the court case?

Suggested Activities

Themes

AMERICA IN THE WORLD; AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP

Source Notes