WALL STREET JOURNAL:
Puerto Rico Statehood Bid Gets New Push
By ARIAN CAMPO-FLORES
Election Day in San Juan in November, when a plebiscite on the status of Puerto Rico took place. Puerto Ricans have debated for decades whether their island territory should become the 51st U.S. state. Supporters of statehood, while still facing long odds, are now pressuring U.S. Congress to settle the issue. Pedro Pierluisi—the island’s Democratic representative in the U.S. House and a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party in Puerto Rico—filed a bill last week that called for a plebiscite on the island. It would ask a direct yes-or-no question: Do you want Puerto Rico to be a state? If a majority says yes, the president would be required to submit legislation to Congress, which has ultimate authority to admit Puerto Rico as a state through a simple majority vote.
Some analysts say that despite the support of some Republicans in Congress for the bill, the GOP generally is likely to resist paving the way for a new state that would probably lean Democratic, based on islanders’ past voting behavior. Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, who is the island’s representative in the U.S. House, in January urged Congress to allow an end to the territorial status. “I see no reason why Congress would even consider it,” said Charles Venator-Santiago, a political-science professor at the University of Connecticut who has studied Puerto Rico extensively.
Backers of the bill say the current debate over immigration in Washington helps their chances. If lawmakers are considering legalizing the undocumented population, proponents argue, they should also resolve the situation of Puerto Ricans on the island, who are U.S. citizens but can’t vote for president and lack full representation in Congress.
“Offering a path to citizenship and full rights to 11 million residents of the U.S. while continuing to deny full rights to nearly four million people who have been U.S. citizens for close to 100 years creates a dichotomy that has to be addressed,” said Kenneth McClintock, a former lieutenant governor of Puerto Rico and member of the statehood party. Mr. McClintock said that at a time when Republicans are intent on wooing Hispanic voters, they don’t want to appear to be thwarting Puerto Ricans’ ability to determine the territory’s fate. While islanders tend to be liberal on economic issues, he said, they are socially conservative. “Puerto Rico could end up being a swing state,” he said.
Under Mr. Pierluisi’s measure, which has 31 Democratic and seven Republican co-sponsors, the House would be expanded to accommodate new members from Puerto Rico, so no state would lose seats. Past debates over granting representation in the House to the District of Columbia, which tends to be liberal, triggered jockeying by Republicans to secure an additional seat in a state friendly to them. Supporters of statehood are energized by a plebiscite on the island last November that they say showed for the first time a majority of Puerto Ricans rejecting the current commonwealth status and embracing statehood. “The vote was a game-changer,” said Carlos Colón de Armas, a political analyst in Puerto Rico and proponent of statehood. “It’s a potentially historic moment.”
But the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party discounts the results, arguing that the referendum’s format was flawed. The Puerto Rican legislature, which is controlled by the commonwealth party, passed a resolution last week calling the November referendum “inconclusive.” The party argues that statehood would strip Puerto Rico of its cultural identity, and it supports amending the commonwealth arrangement to provide the island more autonomy in areas like foreign relations. Puerto Ricans have grappled with the island’s status since the U.S. acquired it in the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Though people on the island have been U.S. citizens since 1917, their sole representative in Congress is a so-called resident commissioner—currently Mr. Pierluisi—who has no vote on the House floor. They pay no federal income tax, but receive some federal benefits such as Medicare and Medicaid.The island has held several plebiscites on its status over the years, and they have generally been contentious and “subject to vigorous objections” from different sides, said Christina Duffy Ponsa, a professor and expert on Puerto Rico and constitutional law at Columbia Law School.
For Mr. Pierluisi’s bill, it is “a roll of the dice,” said Democratic Rep. José Serrano of New York, a co-sponsor. “If people vote against statehood, then I think it could disappear as an issue for a generation.” The November ballot illustrated how contentious the debate is. It involved a two-part question. The first asked whether the island should continue in its current territorial status, to which 54% of voters responded no.
On the second part, which asked voters to choose among three nonterritorial options, 61% chose statehood, 5% chose independence and 33% chose a “sovereign free associated state”—a voluntary political association that would be negotiated between the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Yet statehood opponents point out that 26% left the second question blank, which the commonwealth party had urged voters to do as a form of protest. Factoring in those ballots would yield only 45% support for statehood. As a result, Mr. Pierluisi’s bill, which cites the referendum, “is predicated on false premises,” said José Hernández Mayoral, secretary of federal affairs for the commonwealth party. Mr. Pierluisi responds that counting blank ballots makes no sense, since it is impossible to divine voters’ intentions.
Write to Arian Campo-Flores at email@example.com