Could Puerto Rico become a US state? New bill in Congress faces an uphill battle

By Syra Ortiz-Blanes and Bianca Padró Ocasio
The Miami Herald/TNS
Puerto Rico interim governor Pedro Pierluisi answers questions during a press conference on his first day in the government's mansion on Aug. 2, 2019 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Florida Rep. Darren Soto and Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González are introducing a bill in the House of Representatives Tuesday that would enable Puerto Rico to be admitted into the United States as an American state - a proposal that faces an uphill battle, despite optimism from proponents that a Democratic-majority legislature might push the initiative forward.

The bipartisan bill establishes a process to allow the unincorporated territory to shed its 68-year-old commonwealth status. Island residents would participate in a federally binding election called by the governor to choose whether or not Puerto Rico should immediately be granted statehood. If the status option prevails, the U.S. president would declare the results and a date on which the island would become a state.

"Puerto Rico has been part of this nation since 1898, when through the Treaty of Paris, we passed from the Spanish government to the American government," said González as she stood outside the U.S. Capitol alongside other lawmakers. "On a day like today in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson gave us American citizenship. Yet to this day, it is still a second-class American citizenship."

The legislative push for Puerto Rico statehood comes after Gov. Pedro Pierluisi announced he planned to fund elections for shadow representatives that would lobby for it in Washington. It also follows a November 2020 nonbinding referendum, where 52.52% of voters voted "yes" for statehood - the sixth such vote since 1967.

Both Pierluisi and the Biden administration have expressed an interest in improving ties, which grew strained under the Trump administration. The governor will meet online Wednesday with a trio of senior Biden administration officials to discuss ongoing efforts to release more economic aid authorized in the aftermath of 2017 Hurricane Maria, the response to the pandemic, and long-term economic development concerns, a White House official said.

Puerto Rico is grappling with the pandemic, a series of earthquakes that began over a year ago and continue to rattle the island, and the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Maria, which killed thousands and demolished critical infrastructure. Becoming a state could allow the island to access additional federal funds, have stronger representation in Congress, and have the right to vote for president. Detractors support the island's status quo relationship or want outright independence for a broad variety of reasons—from concerns that statehood is colonial to fears that Puerto Rico will lose its cultural identity.

It's not the first time a law related to Puerto Rican statehood has been presented in the American legislature - seven have been introduced since 2013. In March 2019, Soto and González also introduced a bill to permanently annex Puerto Rico into the union. Later that year, in October, Rep. José Serrano, in conjunction with the pair, presented a project charting a path for statehood admission for the island. None has become law so far.

Proponents say this time is different, setting their hopes on a Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress and a Biden presidency. They also point to the 2020 referendum asking Puerto Ricans if they support statehood - calling the results a ringing endorsement. In a letter asking colleagues to co-sponsor the bill, Soto and González say that an "absolute majority" had favored statehood. The U.S. Congress is in charge of admitting new states into the American union, per the Constitution. New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich plans to introduce the bill on the Senate side.

But the statehood proposal remains divisive - and not just along party lines. Democrats have also split on whether to support it, with some unconvinced it is beneficial for either side.

"The statehood movement in Puerto Rico has to do a pretty big job of convincing sectors of the United States," said Baruch College School of Public and International Affairs professor Héctor Cordero. "There is a lot of work to be done."

While campaigning in Florida last year, Biden said he personally supports statehood for the island, but his official political stance is in favor of "self-determination," a position many Puerto Ricans in Florida see as an attempt to avoid weighing in on a divisive topic.

What "self-determination" looks like is unclear. Some say Congress should move forward in passing a bill, given that a majority on the island voted in favor of annexation. Others think island residents need to be consulted in a more substantial way before moving forward.

"There is a segment that supports it because they see that it may have certain benefits for Democratic Party, for Puerto Rico, and they also see it perhaps as a question of civil rights," Cordero said. "And there is a segment that believes that Puerto Rico has been a separate nation that has been colonized and that the best road map is a process of decolonization."

In the Republican camp, top senators such as Florida's Rick Scott and Marco Rubio have previously voiced support for Puerto Rican statehood, in line with the Republican party platform, which "recognizes the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state." But Scott's spokesman later added that Puerto Rico should prioritize its billion-dollar debt crisis.

Key congressional leadership in both parties have not extended the same support for the island's statehood. On the Democratic side, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently said he does not favor a "pro-statehood bill" until the island can "straighten things out," according to El Nuevo Día. Meanwhile, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell deemed the concept as  "full-bore socialism" in 2019.

"Here's what they're going to do after they change the filibuster: They're going to admit the District (of Columbia) as a state. They're going to admit Puerto Rico as a state. That's four new Democratic senators in perpetuity," McConnell added last September, alluding to party worries that admitting the island could cement Democratic dominance in the upper legislative chamber.

Although the majority of Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. vote Democratic, analysts note that statehood for the American territory does not guarantee that voters on the island, which has conservative and Republican factions, will choose Democratic officials.

Experts say even if a bill doesn't pass it could be a step toward a final resolution.

"That there is a project in Congress to address the situation of the status of Puerto Rico is positive because the political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States needs a change," Cordero said. "(But) it is not a process that appears to be inclusive. It appears to be a project to support one of the status options because in a recent plebiscite it obtained a little more than the majority of half of the votes."

Federico de Jesús, a political consultant and former Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration official, says domestic politics will factor in to how any statehood effort moves forward.

"In Congress, is Jennifer González going to have more sway with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, or is it Nydia Velázquez?" he said, referring to the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress, who has represented a New York City district since 1993.

Velázquez, along with another prominent Democratic New York, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, sponsored the "Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act," last August. If passed, the law would establish a "status convention" made up of Puerto Rican delegates charged with finalizing a long-term solution on the issue of the island's political status. They would establish a mechanism for self-determination "for congressional consideration."

Last month one of Velázquez's staff members said the legislator hopes the bill will be reintroduced, indicating that two differing Puerto Rico status bills could compete on the legislative floor.

But de Jesús does not discard the possibility of Puerto Rican statehood under a Biden administration, particularly following congressional midterms. There might be a larger Democratic majority in the Senate, perhaps paving the way for Democrats to change filibustering procedures or for more support for Puerto Rican statehood in the Senate.

"Sometimes in Puerto Rico, they make the mistake of making it into a legal argument, when in reality this is politics and it's about power" he said. "I just think it is hard for it to happen in this two-year period, again, given the deadlock with forces in Puerto Rico divided half and half as well as in Congress."