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U.S. Supreme Court Asked to Review Puerto Ricans' U.S. Citizenship

October 8, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Jennifer Efron is a U.S. citizen because she was born in Puerto Rico. But her parents say Puerto Ricans' U.S. citizenship is not guaranteed, so they're asking the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the teen-ager to naturalize.

If the Supreme Court agrees to hear Efron's petition, the case could affect millions of Puerto Rico-born citizens both in this Caribbean territory and on the U.S. mainland.

Efron's attorneys argue that since Congress granted residents of Puerto Rico a statutory U.S. citizenship in 1917, it technically could revoke it -- especially if the island eventually should become independent.

That prospect is remote -- less than 5 percent of island voters have supported independence in recent plebiscites. Still, the possibility that Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. territory could change "makes the concern (over citizenship) even greater," attorney Nathan Dershowitz said Thursday.

"There's millions of people in the United States who don't know what their status is," said the New York-based Dershowitz, whose brother, celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, also is on Efron's legal team.

Puerto Rico has a population of nearly 4 million. At least 2 million others who were born in Puerto Rico live on the U.S. mainland.

Officials at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service insisted Thursday that Puerto Ricans' citizenship rights are not at risk.

"The bottom line is that a person born in Puerto Rico is a U.S. citizen and does not need to be naturalized," INS spokesman Bill Strassberger said.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida and the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the same way in dismissing lawsuits filed by Efron's father, David Efron.

But in an article last year, former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said that Puerto Ricans' citizenship is "granted by statute and not fully protected by the U.S. Constitution."

To date, the Supreme Court has not considered any case that would clarify the issue. Efron said Thursday the Supreme Court has several months to decide whether to hear his appeal.

As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico enjoys limited autonomy. The island's U.S. citizens are eligible for military service and receive billions of dollars in U.S. federal aid each year, but they cannot vote for president and have only a non-voting congressional representative.

Supporters of U.S. statehood for Puerto Rico have tried to sell statehood as the only guarantor of U.S. citizenship.

David Efron, father of 15-year-old Jennifer, is a statehood advocate, and he acknowledged his petition could have wide-reaching political implications.

"This is more than a case. It's a cause," said Efron, a native of Cuba and San Juan attorney and real estate developer who became a U.S. naturalized citizen as a child.

Efron said he fears recent frictions in Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States are signs of a changing political climate that puts Puerto Ricans' U.S. citizenship more at risk.

The Puerto Rican government has demanded that the U.S. Navy leave its training ground on the island of Vieques after a fatal accident in April. And many in the United States were angry that President Clinton offered clemency in August to 16 pro-independence Puerto Rican activists affiliated with a militant group blamed for deadly bombings in New York and Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s.

"With everything that's been going on with the Puerto Rican prisoners and Vieques, there's a lot of nationalistic sentiment (among Puerto Ricans)," Efron said. "I don't know what the U.S.' take is on this.

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