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Isabel González: San Juan to the Supreme Court

By Tara Mae

Isabel González did not initially intend to become an advocate. In defining and defending her right to claim American citizenship as a Puerto Rican, she forced the government to consider her legal status and caused a reckoning for how she and other Puerto Ricans were perceived. Her journey through Ellis Island and her fight in the Supreme Court reflect ongoing discussions about immigration and personhood. 

When González was born to a comfortable family in San Juan, Puerto Rico on May 2, 1882, the island was still part of the Spanish empire, which rendered her a citizen of Spain. The country went to war with the United States, which invaded and annexed Puerto Rico. She was nearly 17 when the Treaty of Paris was signed on April 11, 1899, ceding the island to the United States. This transfer of power theoretically transferred the allegiance of the citizens. It also enforced new trade restrictions, caused a shift in the economy, and neglected to apply democratic principles to the new acquisition. 

Following a Supreme Court case, Downes v. Birdwell, Puerto Rico was designated an “unincorporated territory.” Its residents did not have an automatic right to the protections assured by the Constitution. In certain circumstances Congress had the ability to enact law in its territories, particularly ones pertaining to revenue. Doing this in states would be prohibited by the Constitution.

The island endured further upheaval when the San Ciriaco hurricane, the longest-lived such storm in recorded history, ravaged Puerto Rico. Still a teenager at the time, González married a man 12 years her senior; 16 months later he was dead of tuberculosis, leaving her a widowed mother to a small child. By 1902, she was apparently engaged and had a child on the way. Intending to reunite with her betrothed and lacking practical possibilities for supporting her family, she decided to immigrate to the United States. 

A pregnant González left her daughter with her mother, and boarded a steamship, the SS Philadelphia, bound for the Port of New York. From there, she intended to join her family on Staten Island. She sent them a telegram, announcing her intended arrival. As González moved towards the promise of her future, the United States government arrested that potential. En route to the country, the government changed how it viewed Puerto Ricans. 

Under the direction of the United States Treasury Department’s Immigration Commissioner General F. P. Sargent, new guidelines went into effect: while at sea, González (like all other Puerto Ricans) was classified as an alien, changing her eligibility of entry into the country. Upon arriving in New York City, instead of disembarking, she and the other passengers were transferred to Ellis Island. Once there, she was subject to the enhanced scrutiny of the policies of the new commissioner of immigration. 

William Williams was a former lawyer and stickler for stringently enforcing immigration laws. He was especially aggressive about expelling persons who might be perceived as potential “public charges.” Unwed mothers and their children were automatically categorized as such, despite the fact that many, even most, of these women had some form of employment awaiting them. Single women were only released if family showed up to claim them.

Unmarried and pregnant, González was seen as an “alien immigrant” and identified as a likely “public charge.” Two marks against her. Although her relatives did go to Ellis Island to retrieve her, she was not released. A special inquiry into her eligibility was launched, and a hearing was held the next day. González’s brother Luis González and uncle Domingo Collazo came to support her. Collazo was a Puerto Rican politician, activist, and journalist with connections in the community. Immigration officials misspelled her name as Gonzales. 

González’s conventionally respectable position as a widow was hampered by the fact she was pregnant. Her mother was destitute and few opportunities existed for González in Puerto Rico. Her uncle, aunt, and brother advocated for allowing her into New York. The inspectors’ grievances focused on whether she was morally fit to be a good mother, regardless of legitimate family relationships. Immigration regulations were preoccupied with the family structures and sexual morals of immigrants. Officials found González lacking in these regards, and thus a liability. 

At the hearings, her relatives repeatedly assured the court that they had the economic capacity to support González and she would thus not become reliant on the state’s welfare system. Her fiancé did not attend these hearings and the court used that against her, denying González entry into the country. Collazo had prominent allies and acquaintances, such as Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, who he called upon in support of González’s defense.

Collazo swore a habeas corpus petition on González’s behalf. A friend of hers shared her story with a lawyer, Orrel A. Parker, whose partner, Charles E. Le Barbier, developed an interest in her case. Le Barbier filed the petition with the United States Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York. It ruled in favor of the government, stating that González was an alien and thus subject to deportation. 

Unaware of González’s plight, Frederico Degetau, first Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico and expert in international law, wrote to the Secretary of State, denouncing the legislation that rendered Puerto Ricans aliens as opposed to citizens. The complaint was forwarded to the Treasury Department, and Degetau contacted Parker and Le Barbier, who told him of their plans to take González’s case to the Supreme Court.

Degetau was excited by this prospect. González’s situation was a prime “test” case to determine the legal status of Puerto Ricans who were alive when Spain annexed the island to the United States. This predicament drew Frederic René Coudert, Jr. to the cause. An international lawyer based in New York, in Downes v. Birdwell, he had represented clients who opposed tariffs levied on goods shipped between Puerto Rico and the United States.  Another lawyer, Paul Fuller, was also part of the legal team. 

González had her own plan and strategy. She was not just a passive participant in her legal fight, but an architect of its meaning and mastery. Rather than target the “public charge” identification, González centered her case on the idea that all Puerto Ricans were citizens and therefore should not be detained or refused entry into the country. Out on bond, she got married, which legally entitled her to stay in the country. González kept her marriage secret so as not to distract from or undermine the effort. 

On December 4 and 7, 1903, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Gonzáles v. Williams (the official title uses the incorrect spelling of González’s name.) The case garnered national attention and inspired legal, administrative, and media speculation about the legal status of Puerto Ricans. It raised questions about immigration and the country’s treatment of its citizens, specifically women and people of color. González and her lawyers explored themes of gender, race, and morality. The Solicitor General of the United States, Henry M. Hoyt, concentrated on what he perceived as the issue of failed parents: individuals raising children outside the realm of “moral,” financially self-sufficient homes. 

The Supreme Court ruled in González’s favor, declaring that she was not an alien and could remain in the United States. It did not acknowledge her as a citizen. Whether Puerto Ricans were legally recognized as citizens continued to be a confusing, vague, and contested concept. They came to be known as “noncitizen nationals.” 

Seeking to fully restore her reputation, González launched a very targeted media campaign. Through letters published in The New York Times, she revealed that she was married and rebuked immigration officials’ claims that she would need public assistance. Criticizing the country’s role as colonizer, González posited that since Puerto Ricans had their Spanish citizenship abrogated, the United States was obligated to give them American citizenship. González noted that she did not see the court’s ruling as a victory, because Puerto Ricans existed in a citizenship limbo: “the actual incongruous status - neither ‘Americans nor foreigners,’ as it was vouchsafed by the United States Supreme Court apropos of my detention at Ellis Island for the crime of being an ‘alien.’”

She wed Juan Francisco Torres in 1915 and raised five children. González’s work was part of the larger undertaking to resolve the uncertainty about the legal standing of Puerto Ricans. The Jones-Shafroh Act, signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917, reformed the Puerto Rican government and granted citizenship to anyone born in Puerto Rico on or after April 11, 1899. In June of that same year, he signed a compulsory military act which enabled the United States government to draft Puerto Ricans for service during World War I. González and Torres eventually moved to New Jersey, where she died in 1971.

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