The island, which has been a United States territory since 1898, has been stuck in an economic depression for the last decade , and has seen an astounding half million Puerto Ricans migrate to the mainland. Proponents of statehood proclaim that becoming a state would help fix their economic woes, while opponents say the expensive referendum is just a politically charged distraction.
The referendum had 3 options; remain a territory of the United States, cut ties with the United States and become an independent nation, or try and become a state. Statehood was supported by Governor Ricardo Rossello from the “New Progressive Party,” while the “Popular Democratic Party” and “Puerto Rican Independence Party” called for their supporters to boycott, rather than participate in, the referendum.
Supporters of statehood, like Rossello, see becoming a state as a way to help out the territories economic problems. Rossello, and other supporters, point out that the current situation cannot continue to exist. As a territory, Puerto Rico receives less federal funding for programs like medicare and medicaid than their counterparts, and its residents are not allowed to vote for President, despite the fact that those born in Puerto Rico have been granted US citizenship since 1917.
Opponents of the referendum said that the vote was an expensive distraction; costing the cash-strapped territory nearly $11 million dollars at a time when the island is over $70 billion in debt. Other opponents, like Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez, just don’t see it happening, even though the support seems to be there;
“The supporters of statehood are selling a fantasy that a Latino, Caribbean nation will be admitted as a state during the era of Donald Trump (and) that states, many of which supported Trump, will accept a Spanish-speaking state”
Representative Gutierrez brings up a valid point: just because Puerto Ricans want to become a state, doesn’t mean it will happen. Past referendums have ended with the people declaring that they want Puerto Rico to become a state, yet they are still a territory. This is, in part because, admitting a new state for the Union is difficult, and vague.
Admitting a New State
Admitting a new state is incredibly rare, last occurring when Alaska and Hawaii were admitted in January and August of 1959. The process for admitting a new state is laid out in Article IV Section 3 of the Constitution.
“New states may be admitted by the Congress into this union; but no new states shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other state; nor any state be formed by the junction of two or more states, or parts of states, without the consent of the legislatures of the states concerned as well as of the Congress.
The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to prejudice any claims of the United States, or of any particular state.”
The process generally plays out like this: the proposed state votes on statehood, proposed state then petitions Congress for statehood, next the House and Senate (can) vote to accept the proposed state; after all of that, the President then signs off, if he wants. The process also calls for the proposed state to adopt an “acceptable” constitution, which Puerto Rico had ratified in 1952.
The path Puerto Rico would follow, would be the “Tennessee Plan” which calls for drafting a constitution, holding a referendum, and then petitioning Congress for statehood. The plan has been used successfully six times (MI, IA, CA, OR, KS, AK). Following the referendum, Governor Rossello would send a lobbying party to DC to lobby on behalf of Puerto Rico’s statehood.
Puerto Rico’s Long fight for Statehood
Puerto Rico has had a long history of trying to become our nation’s 51st state. They took the first steps towards becoming a state in 1950, when Congress gave Puerto Rico the permission to draft a constitution, their constitution was ratified by Congress in 1952.
Although they voted to become a state in 2012, Puerto Rico has seen nothing from Congress that suggests statehood will happen anytime soon. In an attempt to rectify this, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner in the U.S House of Representatives, introduced the “Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Process Act” in 2015. This legislation outlines the process for Puerto Rico’s statehood admission. Pierluisi’s legislation states that if the citizens of Puerto Rico vote for statehood, than within 30 calendar days of a positive vote, the President will begin the process of adopting Puerto Rico as a state:
“(a) Proclamation.—Within 30 calendar days of receipt of the certified results transmitted pursuant to section 4, the President shall issue a proclamation to begin the transition process that will culminate in Puerto Rico’s admission into the Union as a State effective January 1, 2021.”
Despite having over a dozen co-sponsors, the bill hasn’t seen any movement since 2015.
Despite Sunday’s outcome, it does seem unlikely that Puerto Rico will be admitted to the Union anytime soon. As Rep. Gutierrez pointed out; it is unlikely that the Trump administration will be itching to admit a Spanish-speaking state into the Union.
If admitted, however, Puerto Rico could become the first “state” to elect representatives from a political party outside of the big two. The “Puerto Rico Independence Party” (PIP) believes that regulation imposed by the United States government is prohibitive in nature, and that the island’s independence is the best option for the future of Puerto Rico. While the “New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico” tends to believe that the benefits of having two Senators, full voting rights, and access to more federal funding will solve their economic woes.