Current Events

The Statehood Debate

A bipartisan group of lawmakers and Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Roselló presented a bill on March 28 that would grant Puerto Rico statehood within 90 days of being enacted. The bill comes after years of public outrage over the U.S. government’s limited aid to the territory following Hurricane Maria and after decades of debate over Puerto Rico’s status as a territory.

When Hurricane Maria, a category five storm, touched down in Puerto Rico in September 2017, it was the worst storm to hit the island in over 80 years. Even today, some residents still live with tarps for roofs or lose power often. In the nine days following Hurricane Maria, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved $6.2 million to assist victims in Puerto Rico, while Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas received $141.8 million in the same time period, according to CNN. Given this inequity, the question of whether Puerto Rico should embrace statehood, seek independence, or remain a territory has become increasingly relevant in today’s news. It is the question that 10 sophomores aimed to answer in the All-Star Debate last month (see “Sophomore All-Stars consider Puerto Rican,” below). 

Puerto Rico has been considered a United States (U.S.) territory, or commonwealth, since the Spanish-American War of 1898, and its people have been considered U.S. citizens since Congress issued the Jones Act under President Woodrow Wilson in 1917. Along with granting Puerto Rican residents citizenship status, the act also established the election of a resident commissioner on the island who speaks for Puerto Ricans in the U.S. House of Representatives but cannot vote on any bills. If Puerto Rico were to become a state, it would acquire two seats in the U.S. Senate and five in the House of Representatives, and it would gain up to an additional $20 billion a year of federal funding, according to The Washington Post. They would gain the right to vote in the general presidential election, and 2.7 million of the island’s 3.6 million residents (those who are of voting age) would also begin paying billions in federal taxes, which would benefit the U.S. government. Currently, Puerto Ricans can only vote in the primaries.

The topic of statehood has brought about five referenda so far, none of which has changed the status of Puerto Rico. Citizens voted to remain a commonwealth in the first two referenda in 1967 and 1993, and it wasn’t until 2012 that the majority of Puerto Ricans who voted chose statehood. In 2017, 97% voted for statehood, though only 23% of the population actually filled out a ballot. Because this was a historically low number—credited to a boycott led by the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico, which advocates for the island to stay a U.S. Commonwealth—Congress decided to ignore the results. Because these multiple referenda have not achieved anything, Governor Roselló’s March 28 bill would not require a referendum to be passed to ensure statehood. If approved by the House, the Senate, and the president, Puerto Rico will be admitted as a state. However, the bill is unlikely to pass under the current Republican-controlled Senate and White House that are against statehood for Puerto Rico—and the Congressional Democratic leadership that have recently announced their priorities lie first with statehood for the District of Columbia.

Puerto Rico’s status as a territory has been an ongoing point of controversy for decades, and what path the island will take is uncertain. 

The Vanguard asked several members of the school community with connections to Puerto Rico for their opinions on the matter.

—Ava Levinson ’21

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