Isabel González and U.S. Citizenship for Puerto Ricans

Isabel Gonzalez

Isabel González was 20 years old and pregnant in 1902. She was traveling from her home in Puerto Rico to the United States, where the baby’s father moved to find a job in advance of González’s arrival.

But at Ellis Island, she was stopped and held. The inspectors told her that as a single pregnant woman, she was unfit to enter the U.S. as she might become a “ward of the state.”

Isabel González knew this was unjust. With the help of family already in the United States, she asked for a hearing on her case. This led to another legal action that she eventually took to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruling, while not totally satisfactory at the time, was a first step for Puerto Ricans in being identified as citizens of the United States.

The Isabel González Story

Isabel González (1882-1971) grew up in a family where activism was valued. During the era when Puerto Rico was under Spanish rule, her father stood up for many causes that were important to Puerto Rican citizens. Isabel saw advocacy in action.

When González embarked on her trip to America, Puerto Rico was adjusting to change. With the U.S. victory over Spain in the Spanish-American War (1898), Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines became territories of the U.S. The Treaty of Paris (1898) spelled out the initial terms. Then in 1902, the U.S. passed the Foraker Act. This outlined the new civilian government for Puerto Rico. It provided for a non-voting resident commissioner to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1902 when Isabel González set sail, the countries were still finding their way in the new relationship. Neither the Treaty of Paris nor the Foraker Act specified the status of the residents. They were expected to follow federal laws set out by the U.S., but what rights belonged to them? It was unclear.

Travel Between Puerto Rico and the U.S.

Puerto Rico

For the first couple of years after the war, Puerto Rican residents were permitted to come and go between the U.S. without any problem. Tobacco workers were badly needed, and other newcomers were allowed to enter the country.

When Isabel González boarded the S.S. Philadelphia in San Juan, she had no reason for concern. Her brother and aunt and uncle were living in Staten Island and were employed. She had a place to stay while she located the baby’s father after she arrived. The couple’s plan had been to marry once he found work.

Stopped by Inspectors

But in an experience eerily familiar to occurrences of 2017, the rules of immigration suddenly changed. Before her ship arrived in New York, a government official had a change of heart as to who should be allowed in the country.

In 1902, William Williams, a Wall Street lawyer, took over as commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island. He brought with him firm ideas, and he wanted aggressive inspection of those arriving. He gave his inspectors guidance:

  • If people came in with less than $10, they were high risk.
  • Women and children were automatically viewed as dependent, even if they had family where they could stay or a promise of a job.
  • Unmarried pregnant women were also detained. It was assumed they were morally deficient and would almost certainly end up on the public dole.

When Isabel González disembarked, she was stunned to be held. She was traveling with $11, and she had family meeting her. But the inspectors noticed the pregnancy. She was stopped.

Setting Priorities

Puerto Rico
Morro Castle, San Juan

When her aunt, uncle, and brother learned of her plight, they agreed—as did Isabel—that the most important goal was getting González released.

Their initial effort was to contest that she was without support. The first day she was held, her uncle, D. Collazo, appeared and testified that she was family, that he was employed, and he expected to support her.

But the inspectors wanted to meet the husband-to-be. Unfortunately for González, no one in the family had succeeded in reaching him. The family played for time by saying to the inspectors that he wasn’t there as he could not take time off from work.

The inspectors held firm: “Her husband should come…”

With no fiancé located by the next day, González’s aunt arrived to plead for her niece. She, too, had a job, and she assured the inspectors that Isabel González would be well taken care of.

But as far as the officials were concerned, if Isabel González could not produce her future spouse, she could not enter the country. The inspectors allowed one more day for the fiancé to appear.

He still hadn’t been located. Entry was denied.

Appealing the Case

Isabel González and her uncle understood the system and knew they could appeal. Collazo reached out to contacts for names of attorneys. González was free on bail until her next hearing, and she began working with attorneys Paul Fuller and Charles E. Le Barbier.

As word traveled throughout the legal system, the case drew interest. Frederic R. Coudert, Jr., a well-regarded international lawyer, had just argued a case concerning tariffs and Puerto Rico. It touched on “what is Puerto Rico to the U.S.?” He saw that Isabel González offered a perfect opportunity to urge the U.S. to better define the status of Puerto Rican citizens.

Federico Degetau, the nonvoting resident commissioner for Puerto Rico to the U.S. House of Representatives, also became involved. He knew it was important for the United States to determine whether residents of Puerto Rico were citizens or not.

Arbitrary Decisions

San Juan street view

Experts following decisions relating to Puerto Ricans noted that without guidelines, capricious rulings were being made. Such problems would continue and become more complex. In the midst of González’s plight, a Puerto Rican family returning from Europe on their way back to Puerto Rico via New York were charged custom taxes as if they were U.S. citizens.

Yet no one would rule on the exact status of residents of a U.S. territory.

González Was Silent Activist

Because there was no opportunity for her voice to be heard during the legal maneuvering, Isabel González took small steps from the outside. To start, the fellow she came to marry was located, and they wed. González could have dropped the case, as marriage made it legal for her to remain in the U.S. But she understood that more was at stake.

She kept her marriage secret, and the case went forward.

Supreme Court Takes Case

The U.S. Supreme Court received the briefs in Gonzales v. Williams in late 1903 and agreed to hear the case. In so doing, the judges confirmed what González and her attorneys contended. If the U.S. acquired territories, then the status of colonized people needed to be decided.

Arguing on behalf of the government, solicitor general Henry Hoyt presented that the purpose of U.S. immigration law is to keep out the unfit, to protect from harmful immigration.

Hoyt’s brief described how Puerto Rico and the Philippines were remote in time, space, and culture. He argued that the people from these territories were primitive in hygiene, and said they had low standards of living and moral conduct because of the tropical weather. The U.S. needed to protect its own residents from this element.

On Behalf of González

Frederic Coudert, representing Isabel González, opposed. He noted that the Treaty of Paris transferred allegiance of Puerto Rico from Spain to the United States. In the process, this meant that Isabel González was not a foreign alien. Did the court intend to create a halfway status of “American Alien?”

If the court found against González, then there would be “a large class of persons who are strangers and aliens here and in every other nation of the globe,” it was noted in a paper, “Meanings of Citizenship in the U.S. Empire: Puerto Rico, Isabel Gonzalez and the Supreme Court,” by Sam Erman in The Journal of American Ethnic History (summer 2008).  Essentially, these people would have no legitimate country.

Coudert pointed out that it would be preferable for Puerto Ricans to be of equal citizenship status to others already within U.S. borders: blacks, American Indians, and women.

Puerto Rico Congressional representative and resident commissioner Federico Degetau took his request farther. He stated that Puerto Ricans deserve “robust citizenship.” Before the Treaty of Paris, Puerto Ricans were considered “Spanish citizens,” who held government jobs and had basic rights of citizenship within the country of Spain. They should enjoy the same rights in America.

After the passage of the Foraker Act of 1902, Puerto Ricans paid United States taxes, swore allegiance to the U.S. Constitution and laws, and they elected a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. Shouldn’t that make them full citizens of the United States?

The Supreme Court Ruling

When the ruling came out, the Supreme Court answered only the narrowest of questions: Was a person from one of these territories, an alien?

In 1904, Chief Justice Melville Fuller ruled that Isabel González was not a foreign alien. Some of the points noted in the decision were:

  • In taking over the territory through Treaty of Paris, the United States made the nationality of the island American.
  • America created a civil government that was headed by a person named by the U.S. president.
  • The territories were subject to Congressional oversight as well as the United States judicial process.

The Court decision stated that none of this pointed to territory residents being alien; therefore, Isabel González was permitted to enter the United States.

While this was a victory of sorts, the Court avoided the issue of citizenship. The decision as written noted that it was not their place to rule on an issue that should be decided by Congress.

González Steps Out of the Shadow

While the resolution of the case was not everything González or her attorneys hoped, it ended this chapter of Isabel González’s life. She revealed her marriage—that she was not a “fallen” woman. She also became an activist in standing up for various causes concerning Puerto Rico.

As early as 1905, Isabel González had at least a dozen letters to the editor published in The New York Times. Over the years, she wrote intelligently and well on various topics including:

  • being a second-class citizen when it comes to education in the U.S. (8-16-1905);
  • how the U.S. could learn from Britain when it comes to respect for territorial culture (9-3-1905);
  • Puerto Ricans should be given the right to choose their own leaders instead of having their governmental leader appointed by the American president. (They now choose their own governor.) (12-20-1905)
  • In 1927, she writes at length and with intelligence about Puerto Rico’s financial difficulties. (5-21-1927)

Citizenship for Puerto Ricans At Last

Thirteen years after González v. Williams, the United States Congress addressed the issue of citizenship as it related to Puerto Ricans. The Jones-Shafroth Act was passed in 1917 giving the island residents citizenship.

While this was a positive resolution to the issues raised by Isabel González and has offered better opportunities for the citizens of Puerto Rico, the timing indicates that Congress also clearly saw it as a way to enlarge the pool of men who could be drafted for military service in World War I.

Today the news coverage shows the vast devastation in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. Our fellow citizens there should be welcomed to the mainland so that children can attend schools, and adults can find work until they can go home.

In the meantime, each person who arrives from Puerto Rico is an American citizen and is eligible to vote. They simply need to register with the local election board to be full participants in our democratic process, including presidential elections.

For more stories of the immigrant experiences of this era, see The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War.  

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