My home, Puerto Rico, has been an unincorporated territory of the United States since the 1898 treaty that ended the Spanish-American War. Island residents became American citizens with the enactment of the 1917 Jones Act. Nonetheless, as the United States Supreme Court has confirmed, Puerto Rico is subject to Congress’ plenary powers under the Constitution's Territory Clause.
As a result, my fellow Puerto Ricans and I do not live in a full democracy. We cannot vote for the President, even though we serve in large numbers in the U.S. military and have won five Medals of Honor. We lack two United States senators and five voting members in the U.S. House of Representatives. Instead, we are limited to a single, non-voting delegate in the House. In other words, we do not have a vote in the government that makes our national laws.
This colonial and anachronistic state of affairs contradicts our nation’s fundamental democratic values. The principle of representative democracy simply does not apply to the 3.7 million Americans (more than the population of 23 states) currently residing in Puerto Rico.
Moreover, this territorial status opens the doors for the federal government to treat us unequally under the law. The Island receives roughly half of the federal funding it would receive if it were a state, resulting in the economy of Puerto Rico lagging far behind the rest of the country.
Many federal programs—such as Medicaid, Nutrition Assistance, and Supplemental Security Income—treat Puerto Ricans worse than our fellow citizens in the 50 states. For instance, in 2010, Puerto Rico received about $1 billion in federal Medicaid funding, while Oklahoma (a state with a similar population size) was granted nearly $3.5 billion. Also, our workers pay full federal payroll taxes, but obtain only some benefits under Medicare, which is partially supported by those same taxes. As American citizens, we do not deserve such discrimination.
This inequality has had a severe impact on our quality of life, as well as on Puerto Rico’s ability to develop economically. For example, since 1976, the Island’s unemployment rate has averaged 15.5 percent—while the U.S. national unemployment rate has averaged less than 6.5 percent. Our current poverty rate is 45.1 percent, more than twice that of Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state. In addition, Puerto Rico’s $18,689 income per capita is one-third the national average and half that of Mississippi.
Consequently, during the last decade, Puerto Rico has experienced a massive population exodus. About 4.8 million Puerto Ricans now live in the continental U.S.—one third of whom were born on the Island—which is far greater than the 3.7 million who still reside on the Island. Most of these individuals would prefer to remain in Puerto Rico, but given the current unfair political structure, relocation is the only way to enjoy the full benefits of U.S. citizenship.
Last November 6th, the people of Puerto Rico made history, expressing their desire to leave behind territory status. The local government, under the leadership of former Republican Governor Luis Fortuño, held a two-question referendum on its political status. Of 1.8 million voters, 54 percent said that they did not wish to continue under the present territory condition.
Furthermore, among the three valid non-territorial status options (independence, free association, and statehood), out of the 1.4 million voters that chose an option, 61 percent voted in favor of statehood. We made our voice heard loud and clear.
In light of this, Puerto Rico’s congressional representative, Pedro Pierluisi, on Wednesday introduced H.R. 2000—a bipartisan bill that sets forth a process to admit Puerto Rico as the 51st state of the union. Now the next question is: Will Washington listen?
A myriad of congressional leaders have been longstanding proponents of equality for Puerto Rico. For example, in recent weeks, prominent Democratic leaders like Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and senior Congressman Jose Serrano (D-NY) voiced their support for resolving Puerto Rico’s political status problem.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Obama included in his budget proposal $2.5 million to establish voter education initiatives and conduct the first federally sanctioned plebiscite in Puerto Rico’s history.
Similarly, Republican leaders have historically been advocates for Puerto Rico’s statehood. President Ford believed “that the appropriate status for Puerto Rico is statehood.” President Reagan argued that he looked forward to “welcoming Puerto Rico with open arms.” Also, both the elder President Bush and his son have stated their support for statehood. More recently, conservative leaders like Rep. Peter King and Grover Norquist have embraced the statehood cause as well.
All of these leaders understood that perfecting our union is a process. We abolished slavery after the Civil War in 1865, recognized a woman’s right to vote in 1921, and decided that separate was not equal in 1954. Under our Constitution, there is only one way to ensure full self-government and equality for the people of Puerto Rico, and that is through statehood.
As Rep. Pierluisi remarked at a recent event cosponsored by Cornell in Washington, “The struggle for statehood is a fight for civil rights and a fight for human rights.” This issue transcends partisan politics; it is about right and wrong. After 115 years of inequality, it is past time that we have the same rights and responsibilities as our fellow American citizens.
Now I ask you: Do you believe in democracy and equality?
Julio A. Cabral Corrada is a graduating senior concentrating in Business and Government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org