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Puerto Ricans have enjoyed U.S. citizenship since 1917. Ever since, the regularization of Puerto Rico as a commonwealth has benefited its citizens greatly. However, this status has begun to be seen as unnecessarily limited. The proposal to overcome these limitations is to become a state of the Union, like Texas, Ohio and any of the other states.
The struggle to make this a reality is not new; there are already precedents that have built a path. But that is not enough to make this petition automatically convenient or beneficial for the Union. That is why it is important to analyze: is it a good idea for Puerto Rico to become a state of the Union?
Current status of Puerto Rico
In 1917, the Jones Act was passed granting citizenship to Puerto Ricans. The law grants self-government facilities to the island and the ability to self-govern constitutionally and administratively. In addition, it grants Puerto Rican residency to Americans who reside in Puerto Rico for one year.
The Union benefited from this law since it increased its military capacity. Puerto Ricans can serve as any other American citizen in the Army and have participated in the major wars that the U.S. has entered, such as World War II.
While this law has facilitated the civilian and immigration status of Puerto Ricans, the island does not have the same sovereignty as, for example, New York or Florida, despite being a Commonwealth. In fact, its sovereignty emanates directly from Congress. This has generated an important debate that has even reached the sphere of the United Nations.
During his administration, Barack Obama rejected the proposal that Puerto Rico enhance the autonomy of its institutions, arguing that its only options were independence, reformulation of its association, or becoming a state. Democrats have taken him at his word.
Puerto Rico, a state of the Union?
Several referendums have been held on statehood for the island, but in last year’s referendum, 52% said Puerto Rico should be immediately admitted to the Union as a state. In 2017, the same electoral process took place, resulting in an overwhelming 97% in favor of statehood.
The factor that changed the results in three years is that in the most recent referendum, the votes were more than double those of 2017 (1,289,135 vs. 518,394 respectively). The dramatic increase in voters reveals that Puerto Ricans are much more interested in the future of the island.
As a result, a group of 51 members of the House of Representatives recently formally introduced a bill to make Puerto Rico a state of the Union.
Just as his predecessor supported statehood, current Governor Pedro Pierluisi went all the way to Washington to show his support for the initiative. Pierluisi called the current treatment of Puerto Rico “discriminatory” on his Twitter account.
What does the bill say?
The bill called the Puerto Rico Admission of Statehood Act presents several arguments in favor of statehood, one of them is that it will stop the “political and economic discrimination” of more than a century against Puerto Rico. They also argue in the bill that no American territory that has requested admission to the Union has been denied it. In addition, they point out the electoral precedents that show a majority of citizens in favor of the island’s statehood.
If the bill is approved, a new referendum will be held and if those in favor of Puerto Rico’s inclusion win, the corresponding bureaucratic processes will begin that will culminate in the appointment of the new Puerto Rican representatives in Congress. The governor will be responsible for this appointment.
If the majority does not agree with the inclusion of the island in the Union, the law will cease to have effect.
The legislators who support this proposal, however, did not include the ability for the Union to have any type of vote on this proposal. Thus, they deprive the rest of Americans of an analysis of the implications of including a new state in the political-administrative organization of the nation.
The implications of Puerto Rico as a state of the Union
If Puerto Rico were to join the Union, the effects could be seen politically, administratively, and budgetary-wise. Currently, Puerto Ricans residing on the island cannot vote for president, representatives and senators, unless they move to one of the 50 states, which automatically qualifies them to vote. They are also excluded from U.S. social programs.
Puerto Rico’s economic situation will also weigh heavily on the U.S. if it is included in the Union. The island’s GDP per capita ($32,873.7 according to the World Bank) is less than that of Mississippi ($35,015 according to Statista), the poorest state in the country. As of 2018, 43% of Puerto Ricans were in poverty.
Demographic shifts in the American population are beginning to significantly influence their choices. Puerto Ricans, who are the second-largest Latino community in the United States (27%), helped Democrats widen the gap of registered Hispanics over the Republican Party.
The Scholars Strategy Network center revealed in 2019 that 42% of the islanders define themselves as “moderate”, while 21.7 % liberal, and 20.7 % conservative. On their political party affiliation, 60% of respondents answered that they identified themselves as Democrats, compared to 40% who identified themselves as Republicans. This gives a 20-point margin to Joe Biden’s party, which also proposed this admissions law.
If Puerto Rico is included as a state of the American Union, Democrats will have gained a new blue state, whose inhabitants feel more identified with Joe Biden’s party and would exert an influence on a new political-administrative organization of the U.S.
Rafael Valera, Venezuelan, student of Political Science, political exile in São Paulo, Brazil since 2017 // Rafael Valera, venezolano, es estudiante de Ciencias Políticas y exiliado político en São Paulo, Brasil desde 2017