A group of mostly Democratic members of Congress has crafted a bill to change the status of Puerto Rico. The plan, announced by lawmakers led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), is called the Puerto Rico Status Act. The Act would set a process that would see a change in Puerto Rico’s status, either leading to statehood or further autonomy or even independence for the island, which has been a territory of the United States since 1898.
Ending second-class citizenship for Puerto Ricans
Previously colonized by Spain, Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States as an aftermath of the Spanish American War. Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917. Nevertheless, because Puerto Rico has remained a territory of the U.S. and has not been incorporated as a state, rights and representation are limited for the territory and its people.
Currently, Puerto Ricans living in the mainland U.S. enjoy full citizenship rights in whichever state they reside in. Puerto Ricans on the island, however, do not get to vote for the president, and the island does not have representation in Congress. Puerto Ricans on the island also do not have a guaranteed right to certain federal benefits programs like Supplemental Security Income, a distinction that was recently upheld by the Supreme Court.
Many have pointed toward this type of second-class citizenship in pushing for a change in Puerto Rico’s status. Such disparities have been exacerbated as Puerto Rico has faced several challenges in recent years, including a multi-billion dollar debt crisis and the devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
The new bill would guarantee change of status quo
As CBS News reported, the Puerto Rico Status Act seeks to change this situation by letting Puerto Ricans choose between several alternatives. The Act would provide resources to organize and conduct a binding referendum in Puerto Rico in November 2023, concerning how to change the territory’s status. Puerto Ricans would be given three options in their vote.
One option would be to choose statehood. In this case, the Act would begin the process of admitting Puerto Rico as the 51st state of the United States. A second option would be for Puerto Ricans to vote for independence, with the territory, therefore, becoming an independent nation. Under this option, the Act will allow Puerto Ricans to keep U.S. citizenship for at least one generation.
The third option, called free association, would grant Puerto Rico greater autonomy over its own affairs but retain some shared control with the U.S. federal government. The proposed vote would not include an option to maintain the current status quo.
A compromise in the House, but an uphill battle in the Senate
The details of the Puerto Rico Status Act represent a compromise between two competing plans that had been pursued in Congress. One plan, championed by New York Democratic Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez, focused on self-determination, allowing Puerto Ricans to choose whether or not to become independent. The second effort focused on statehood was led by Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL) and Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, a Republican who serves as Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress. The plan combines these options into one vote.
Even though the plan reconciles divisions within the House, the measure is likely to face opposition from Republicans in both houses of Congress. Republicans have long opposed Puerto Rican statehood given the Democratic leanings of most of the territory’s population. It will be particularly difficult for the proposal to pass in the Senate, where Republicans have largely been able to block the Democratic agenda through the use of the filibuster.
Divisions remain within Puerto Rico over its status
In addition to partisan divisions within Congress, the new plan also has supporters and detractors within Puerto Rico, where the question of the territory’s status remains divisive. Puerto Rico has held seven nonbinding votes on statehood, which have displayed divided opinions on the island’s status. During the November 2020 elections, Puerto Ricans voted 53% for statehood and 47% against statehood; however, only about half of registered voters participated in that vote.
Even now, the new proposal has divided Puerto Rico’s two main political parties. The New Progressive Party favors statehood, while the Popular Democratic Party largely supports the existing status quo and has vowed to oppose the new proposal that would eliminate the island’s current status.
With these various divisions enduring, any process to reexamine Puerto Rico’s status will likely be long and complicated. Nonetheless, the proposal for the Puerto Rico Status Act represents a new development in the long process toward recognizing greater autonomy and rights for Puerto Rico and its citizens.