San Juan, Puerto Rico
Colorful houses line the hillside over looking the beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Martin Wheeler III)

Democrats in the House and Senate Have Introduced New Legislation Aimed at Making Puerto Rico Our 51st State

On Thursday, March 18, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced a measure called the “Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021” which could lead to the island territory becoming a full-fledged U.S. state.

Nicole Acevedo of NBC News reported that the measure “calls for creating a ‘status convention’ made up of delegates elected by Puerto Rican voters. The delegates would be responsible for coming up with long-term solutions for the island’s territorial status — statehood, independence, a free association or other options beyond its current territorial arrangement.”

In a news conference, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who introduced the measure in the Senate, said it would allow delegates from Puerto Rico to hold formal talks in a “bilateral negotiating commission,” which would also include members of Congress and a number of other federal officials. Menendez said when the commission concludes, the results would be “put before the people of Puerto Rico to vote in a federally recognized referendum for the first time.”

“Most Puerto Ricans favor statehood or some form of its current territorial status,” Acevedo reported. “But historically, the island’s chances to explore independence as an option were limited, especially during the Cold War when Puerto Rico was of strategic importance to the U.S. and the nation’s military.”

Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez of New York introduced the measure in the House, saying it was “as much about allowing Puerto Ricans to assert their political identity as it is about the identity of the United States.”

Ocasio-Cortez added that “If we want to consider ourselves a democracy and live up to our values, it is fundamentally incompatible for an open democracy to have subjects.” 

People living in Puerto Ricans are currently considered U.S. citizens, but they aren’t allowed to vote in presidential elections and don’t pay federal income taxes (since they don’t have representation in Congress). That being said, Acevedo notes Puerto Ricans do pay payroll taxes that help to fund their participation in federal programs like Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Earned Income Tax Credit — essential benefits in a territory where 44% of the population lives in poverty.

“A colony is incompatible with democracy, it’s incompatible with full citizenship, and we should all be able to enjoy the right to vote for our leaders,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “We should all be able to enjoy the right to equal treatment, and self-determination is how we can accomplish that in a process that is respected by all.”

The newly introduced measures add to the list of options for Puerto Rico statehood currently floating around the Capitol. Another proposal for Puerto Rico’s statehood was introduced in the House and Senate earlier in the month by Rep. Darren Soto of Florida and Del. Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting “resident commissioner.” Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico also introduced a similar measure for consideration to the Senate. All three proposals have varying levels of support from both parties.

The renewed interest for transitioning Puerto Rico from territory to state follows a nonbinding referendum that took place in November 2020 in which voters living on the island were asked whether the country should be admitted to the union as a state. Although the vote was close, 53% of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of statehood, according to Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission. The vote was significant because it came three years after Hurricane Maria, which caused one of the worst natural disasters in the region and exposed Puerto Rico’s lack of resources, despite being an American territory.

 

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