The Jones Act, formally known as the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, is a pivotal piece of legislation in the history of Puerto Rico. It granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, a significant change that has shaped the island’s relationship with the United States for over a century. This article examines the historical context of the Jones Act, its direct implications for Puerto Rican citizenship, and its economic impact on the island.

The Jones Act: Historical Context

The Jones Act, named after its sponsor Representative William Atkinson Jones, was a product of ongoing debates in the early 20th century concerning the status and governance of Puerto Rico. Prior to this legislation, Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States was primarily guided by the Foraker Act of 1900. This earlier law provided a basic civil government structure, yet it granted limited autonomy to the island. Puerto Rico was governed by a U.S.-appointed governor and executive council, and the U.S. maintained control over fiscal and economic matters.

The idea of granting U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans was not a new concept at the turn of the 20th century. The notion had been previously floated, particularly during discussions about the Foraker Act. However, it had been resisted by both U.S. lawmakers who feared it would lead to demands for statehood, and by some Puerto Ricans who preferred either independence or greater autonomy within their current status.

The political climate changed dramatically in the lead-up to the United States’ entry into World War I. The war brought new considerations to the fore, including strategic, political, and military concerns. In this context, the idea of extending U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans gained renewed attention.

The Jones Act and Puerto Rican Citizenship

The Jones Act granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, marking a major shift in the island’s political and social landscape. It is crucial to understand, however, that this decision was a product of several intersecting factors.

From a strategic perspective, extending citizenship to Puerto Ricans was seen by many in the U.S. as a way of reinforcing the country’s presence and influence in the Caribbean, a region of increased geopolitical interest due to the war in Europe.

From a political standpoint, granting citizenship was perceived as a way to counter anti-colonial criticism and show that the U.S. was committed to improving the civil rights and political status of its territories. It was also thought that it might foster loyaltyamong Puerto Ricans towards the United States.

From a military viewpoint, the decision was very pragmatic: U.S. citizenship made Puerto Ricans eligible for the draft. At a time when the United States was preparing to enter the global conflict, this significantly increased the pool of potential recruits.

It’s important to note, however, that the decision to grant U.S. citizenship was not universally welcomed in Puerto Rico. While some saw it as a step towards greater integration and access to opportunities within the United States, others viewed it as a way of entrenching U.S. control and undermining the island’s quest for self-determination. Thus, the Jones Act added a new layer of complexity to Puerto Rico’s ongoing political debates.

Economic Implications of the Jones Act for Puerto Rico

The Jones Act did more than transform Puerto Rico’s political status – it had far-reaching economic implications for the island as well. One of the most significant, and often-debated, aspects of the Act is the provision that mandates only American ships may carry goods between U.S. ports.

This maritime law has come under increasing scrutiny over the years. Critics argue that it drastically inflates the cost of imported goods in Puerto Rico by limiting competition and increasing shipping costs. For an island that relies heavily on imports, this has been seen as a contributing factor to Puerto Rico’s economic struggles.


However, the Act’s supporters argue it’s crucial for protecting American maritime jobs and ensuring a consistent level of control over domestic shipping. This aspect of the Jones Act, and the economic implications it has had for Puerto Rico, continues to be a subject of intense debate.

The Jones Act in Modern Puerto Rico

Over a century after it was signed into law, the Jones Act still deeply impacts Puerto Rico’s political, economic, and social landscapes. Its legacy is seen in ongoing debates about Puerto Rico’s status – whether it should push for statehood, maintain its current status, or strive for independence.

Economically, the Jones Act’s shipping restrictions continue to be a focal point of criticism. In the wake of events like Hurricane Maria in 2017, calls to repeal or revise these restrictions have gained traction, though no changes have been implemented as of yet.

From a societal perspective, the U.S. citizenship granted by the Jones Act has shaped the identity of Puerto Ricans, who have had to navigate their unique status as U.S. citizens residing in an unincorporated territory. This status, which offers them many of the rights and privileges of citizenship but denies them equal representation, has been a source of both opportunity and tension.


The Jones Act of 1917 was a landmark piece of legislation that forever altered Puerto Rico’s path. The Act’s implications have echoed through the past century, affecting every aspect of Puerto Rican life and continuing to influence the island’s future. As we look towards that future, understanding the profound and complex impacts of the Jones Act is key to grasping the current realities and challenges of Puerto Rico.

While the Jones Act resolved certain issues of the early 20th century, it also laid the groundwork for new debates and struggles that continue to define Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States. Thus, the Jones Act remains not just a piece of historical legislation, but a living part of Puerto Rico’s ongoing story.