Puerto Rico has been a United States territory since 1898. These U.S. citizens make up a population of 3.2 million, which is more inhabitants than Hawaii, Montana and Wyoming combined. All Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, allowed to travel freely within the U.S. and must pay federal taxes for Social Security and Medicare. They have their own governor and a non-voting representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, but they may not vote in Senate or presidential elections. Therefore, Puerto Rico has no say in the most catastrophic issues facing its people.
Issues in Health Care & U.S. Law
41.3% 0f Puerto Ricans are in deep poverty. For perspective, the average poverty rate in the mainland United States is 10.5%. Most Puerto Ricans are dependent on federal healthcare programs, but unlike the average inhabitants of the states, they have no ability to adjust federal policy and voice complaints. The crumbling medical infrastructure forces residents to accept the degrading economic and medical conditions. Health Management Associates at KFF, a nonprofit focused on providing free and reliable health-related information, shared that self-reported health is two and a half times more likely to be “poor” in Puerto Rico than in any of the 50 states.
Additionally, Puerto Ricans have a lower chance of surviving any serious hospitalization, having a higher possibility of death than other U.S. citizens. Remember, those living under these terrible medical conditions have no power, no voice, and no hope to confront these issues in the country in which they are citizens.
The Supreme Court of the United States decided not to extend basic constitutional rights to residents in state territories, including Puerto Rico. Known as the Insular Cases, these decisions are still in effect and allow Puerto Ricans to be treated as “second-class citizens.” Former Secretary of State William Brayan supported this impactful decision for racist reasons, admitting that he did not want non-whites to have power. Unsurprisingly, the decisions were narrowly passed by the same U.S. Supreme Court that voted to uphold racial segregation as separate but equal.
Puerto Rican citizens are not protected by the U.S. Constitution to the extent that other citizens are, which disregards treasured U.S. ideals and rights by silencing and oppressing fellow citizens in state territories. This muffling of U.S. voices is dramatically illustrated by the Jones Act, which prevented ships with relief goods from reaching hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, a natural disaster that killed more Americans than the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
These U.S. citizens, born in Puerto Rico, have been valiant veterans, drafted into wars since World War I. They have given precious blood, and what have they gained for it? Think about it: If they were American enough to be forced to crawl through trenches, then they are American enough to be allowed to walk to the ballot box. The treatment of Puerto Ricans does not embody the proper ideals of the United States.
Puerto Rico means “rich port” in Spanish, yet it has been smothered by American imperialism, reducing the beautiful land to a place of poverty and struggle. From a moral standpoint, let’s remember when the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Nobody can deny justice to any group while still expecting their own liberty to be respected. Advocates must push for policies that ensure a future of equity for all U.S. citizens, utilizing the following steps:
Number One: Upgrade Puerto Rico to full state status.
The U.S. will thrive financially with Puerto Rican statehood. Investors would experience a boom in profits as the Puerto Rican economy is revived. The growing tourist hot spot would become a new Hawaii (which is another territory-turned-state). Tourism leads to significant profits for businesses in and out of Puerto Rico, bolstering the American tourism industry. The state would reach its full economic potential, a journey already begun by the cruise ship business, adding what experts believe to be at least $6-10 billion to the U.S. treasury. Businesses would thrive with a positive trade balance for individual entrepreneurial investment.
Number Two: The United States should provide equitable financial aid to Puerto Ricans.
Puerto Rico’s “unpayable” debt amounts to $70 billion, owed to public corporations and government entities. This forces their government to allocate 10% of their general budget to paying back this ancient debt rather than focusing finances on internal difficulties. Although public corporations in states can declare bankruptcy and decrease state debt, Puerto Ricans can’t, perpetuating this crisis that is destabilizing the government, taking tax money from citizens, and forcing businesses to flee. This policy further disadvantages Puerto Ricans by pushing them out of financial markets as they struggle through reconstructing their debt plans. Debt forgiveness will allow Puerto Rico to start over with a prosperous economy without being hobbled by hurricane damage and unfair policies of the past.
The lack of financial support from U.S. government agencies is demonstrated by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), whose policies are leading to poverty and the delayed recovery of Puerto Ricans after natural disasters. Studies repeatedly highlight inequities in Puerto Rican hurricane relief programs and funding in contrast to FEMA spending and assistance in states. Imagine if California didn’t receive adequate relief for its $400 billion in damage due to forest fires in 2018, or New York for its $74.1 billion in damage due to superstorm damage in 2017. The same hurricanes that devastate Louisiana every year hit Puerto Rico first, but the main difference is that FEMA helped rebuild Louisiana neighborhoods while neglecting Puerto Ricans. Even when adjusting for population, there were three times as many efforts by FEMA to rebuild Florida than in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
The government is hanging U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico out to dry and no economy or population would be able to grow or survive under these unjust circumstances. With statehood, Puerto Rico citizens would have equal access to federal aid that could fund critical infrastructure, keeping their families safe. This promises a more stable economy, boosting business, investor confidence and tourism.
Number Three: Establish full, statehood representation thereby dismantling the Insular Cases for Puerto Rico.
Statehood will allow the voiceless group of 3.2 million citizens to set their own destiny, allowing them to advocate for their concerns. The future state’s identity would be represented within Congress and presidential elections. Puerto Rico’s concerns would make it to subcommittees and their ideas will be voiced through bills and votes by Puerto Rican senators, representatives, and members of the Electoral College.
This critical journey toward achieving justice could be achieved by demanding that the house judiciary committee reports on Puerto Rico. Then, the public must urge Congress to vote on the issue, ensuring public acknowledgment of the demoralizing Jim Crow-era Insular Cases.
Where to Go From Here
Puerto Rican opinion on statehood has been abundantly clear: Over the years, anywhere from 52.34% to an overwhelming 97% of Puerto Ricans voted to become annexed as the 51st state of the United States, which would end, in the governor’s words, “territorial-colonialism.” Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden ran campaigns supporting annexation. The support for full annexation is rising on the mainland as well.
The key obstruction in the way of a growing statehood movement is, per usual, corruption in government. Politicians create roadblocks, preventing justice and national prosperity. Democrats and Republicans, alike, fear that any change in representation could threaten their politicians and the power they wield. In Congress, Republicans fear the Democratic Party’s sway in Puerto Rico, while Democrats fear the socially conservative ideas on the island. However, if a political party does not represent the opinions of its citizens, then by the basic values of democracy, that party shouldn’t be in power at all. Instead, Congress should support Puerto Rico’s consistent votes for statehood and listen to the voices of U.S. citizens, strengthening democracy.
Party politics should not stand in the way of greater progress for the many. Fundamental constitutional ideals of freedom and justice should never be put in jeopardy. Puerto Ricans have faced many inequities and yearn to embrace a future of beauty, culture and liberty — Let this generation of United States citizens be the first to welcome them.