Commonwealth is a term used by two unincorporated territories of the United States in their full official names. The territories are the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico (which, in Spanish, officially calls itself the 'Free Associated State of Puerto Rico').
The definition of Commonwealth according to current U.S. State Department policy (as codified in the department's Foreign Affairs Manual) reads: "The term 'Commonwealth' does not describe or provide for any specific political status or relationship. It has, for example, been applied to both states and territories. When used in connection with areas under U.S. sovereignty that are not states, the term broadly describes an area that is self-governing under a constitution of its adoption and whose right of self-government will not be unilaterally withdrawn by Congress."
Of the current U.S. insular areas, the term was first used by Puerto Rico in 1952 as its formal name in English ("Commonwealth of Puerto Rico"). The formal name in Spanish for Puerto Rico is Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico ("Free Associated State of Puerto Rico"). The United States acquired the islands of Puerto Rico in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. In 1950, Congress enacted legislation (P.L. 81-600) authorizing Puerto Rico to hold a constitutional convention and in 1952, the people of Puerto Rico ratified a constitution establishing a republican form of government for the island. Puerto Rico's political relationship with the U.S. has been a continuing source of debate in Puerto Rico, the United States Congress, and the United Nations. The issue revolves around whether Puerto Rico should remain a U.S. territory, become a U.S. state, or become an independent country. The debate has spawned several referenda, presidential executive orders and bills in the U.S. Congress. Ultimately the U.S. Congress is the only body empowered to decide the political status of Puerto Rico, as stated under the Territorial Clause.
Despite the Spanish translation of the term "commonwealth", Puerto Rico's relationship with United States is not a Compact of Free Association (which is the case for the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands). As sovereign states, these islands have full right to conduct their own foreign relations, while the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is part of the United States as a territory.
The territory was organized by the Foraker Act in 1900, which was amended by the Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917. The drafting of the Constitution of Puerto Rico by its residents was authorized by Congress in 1951, and the result approved in 1952. The government of Puerto Rico has held several referenda with the options of U.S. statehood, independence, and commonwealth; the commonwealth option won on multiple plebiscites held in 1967, 1993, and 1998. In 2012, 54% of the voters did not wish to continue the present territorial status. Of the non-territorial statuses, becoming a U.S. state got 61.16% of the votes, Sovereign Free Associate State got 33.34% and Independence got 5.49%.
Puerto Ricans have United States citizenship and vote for a Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, with voice but without vote, in the United States House of Representatives. With the exception of federal employees (such as employees of the United States Postal Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and servicemen in all branches of the military), residents of Puerto Rico generally do not pay federal income taxes (with the exception of Social Security and Medicare taxes) and Puerto Rico has no representation in the Electoral College that ultimately chooses the U.S. president and vice president.
Puerto Rico has sports sovereignty, with its own national team at the Olympics and at other international competitions. Puerto Rico also participates in different international organizations such as the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) (associate member), the Organization of Ibero-American States (full member), and the Ibero-American Summit (associate member).
In 1976, Congress approved the mutually negotiated Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) in Political Union with the United States. Prior to November 28, 2009, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) did not apply in the CNMI. Rather, a separate immigration system existed in the CNMI. This system was established under the Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Political Union with the United States of America ("Covenant"), which was signed in 1975 and codified as 48 U.S.C. § 1801. The Covenant was unilaterally amended by the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 (CNRA) approved by the U.S. Congress on May 8, 2008, thus altering the CNMI's immigration system. Specifically, CNRA § 702(a) amended the Covenant to state that "the provisions of the 'immigration laws' (as defined in section 101(a)(17) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(17))) shall apply to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands."2 Further, under CNRA § 702(a), the "immigration laws," as well as the amendments to the Covenant, "shall ... supersede and replace all laws, provisions, or programs of the Commonwealth relating to the admission of aliens and the removal of aliens from the Commonwealth."
Transition to U.S. Immigration Law began November 28, 2009 in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). CNMI's immigration laws have been replaced by the INA and other U.S. immigration laws.
Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution provides that each U.S. State is entitled to two Senators, but makes no provision for representation of insular areas in the Senate.
Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution apportions seats in the House of Representatives among the U.S. States by population, with each State being entitled to at least one Representative, but makes no provision for representation of insular areas in the House. Insular areas are, however, afforded limited representation in the House by a Delegate who may vote in committee but not on the House floor.
The Commonwealth of the Philippines was an insular area that held commonwealth status from November 15, 1935 until July 4, 1946. The United States recognized the future independence of the Philippines in 1934 but called for a transitional ten-year period.