When Puerto Rico comes to mind, most people will now certainly associate the small island with Hurricane Maria. News organizations have been covering Puerto Rico as the most obvious illustration of where FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funds are failing to make any impact. The majority of the island is without power and continues to lack access to clean water. But another longer term crisis has loomed over the island since 1967, namely: What is the status of Puerto Rico?
Puerto Rico neither has the right to a vote in Congress, nor to vote in presidential elections. The island is technically a U.S. colony, with more than 3 million citizens that often are unsure of where their status lies. While any Puerto Rican can simply move to the U.S. mainland and be guaranteed the full rights of a U.S/ citizen, any who choose to stay on the island have fewer rights than their counterparts. We spoke to a Puerto Rican who prefers to remain anonymous. She had this to say:
“I know a lot of people who want Puerto Rico to be independent because they want to conserve the Puerto Rican identity but in crises like the most recent hurricane, it seems like statehood would have its benefits. I think there would have been more immediate and efficient help for the island if it had been a state. In my opinion, our current president does not seem to be giving much thought or care much about Puerto Rico. At least 80% of the island remains without power. If Puerto Rico had been a state, it probably would have received helped quicker and with less hesitation.”
Since 1967, five separate referendums have been held on the issue of US statehood. The most recent one was held in June 2017, where over 97 percent voted in favor of statehood. However, the turnout for that vote was 23 percent and this was due to a boycott by one major party. Despite this odd voting status quo, Puerto Rican citizens don’t actually have a say on whether or not they become a state. Like our Puerto Rican source says, “but if it doesn’t have any consequences or move things along, then why have it in the first place?” Unfortunately both the House of Representatives and the Senate would have to approve statehood legislation. The last time this happened was in 1959 with the states, Alaska and Hawaii.
Puerto Rico was originally taken over by the United States in the Spanish American War of 1898, and its residents were given citizenship in 1917. This year marks the 100th year of that legislation. However, while Puerto Ricans may pay taxes, the island still has no electoral votes, no representative votes and no actual physical representation in the U.S. federal government. Puerto Rico is also facing a debt crisis that affects its health care and economic welfare. In total, Puerto Rico has around $70 billion in debt. The U.S. Congress is currently considering legislation that may set a precedent for the federal government to impose a federal control board of directors on Puerto Rico to address the debt. What does that mean? It means that the U.S. wishes to take more control over Puerto Rico without giving it the benefits of a state. More practically, this crisis means that many Puerto Ricans choose to immigrate to the mainland for better education, jobs and more opportunities to set up businesses. In fact, between 2005 and 2015, Puerto Rico has faced a net loss of around 446,000 people. One of those is the Puerto Rican who we are speaking with. She moved to Massachusetts to find “better education, find a new perspective, a change of scenery and be a bit more independent.”
Luckily if Puerto Ricans choose to immigrate, anyone born in Puerto Rico after 1940 has acquired U.S. citizenship. This is a direct result of being born on Puerto Rican soil as mentioned in the the Nationality Act of 1940. However, the Puerto Rican territory remains unincorporated to the United States as a whole. What is Puerto Rico then? Separate and Unequal. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that all states must guarantee the same rights, privileges, and protections to all citizens. As long as Puerto Rico remains in its colony-like limbo status, its citizens cannot lay claim to that privilege of a constitutional citizenship status. That means that there are those who live as U.S. citizens without full citizenship rights,such as the right to vote and the right to representation.
The issue of statehood ultimately has to do with identity. Do you identify more as Puerto Rican or American? It’s an intensely personal issue. When asked, our Puerto Rican source simply ended by asking us a question in return, “What difference does it make? Aren’t you American if you’re Puerto Rican?”
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