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Puerto Rico's Status Must Change

Updated: Mar 15

Once again, Congress considers the status of Puerto Rico. It's time for a change.


In April, the House reintroduced a bill addressing Puerto Rico's controversial status. If passed, the bill would transform a relationship that's existed since 1898. 


Since the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico has served an important military and economic function. As an unincorporated territory, it pays federal taxes, like Social Security and Medicare, but not federal income tax. Though Puerto Ricans are considered U.S. citizens who can freely travel, they have minimal representation in the U.S. government. They cannot vote in primary elections, and their exemption from federal income taxes comes at the expense of receiving fewer federal benefits, like disability coverage. 


Denied statehood and independence, Puerto Rico is reduced to a mere second thought. In its neglected state, the territory faces massive debt accumulation that has led to recession, devastating natural disasters, government instability and population decline. 

There are five main options for Puerto Rico: status quo, free association, enhanced commonwealth, statehood and independence.


Under the status quo, Puerto Rico would retain its status as an unincorporated territory. Free association would mean no US citizenship but more independence, along with US aid and a strong, dependable relationship. An enhanced commonwealth calls for separate foreign policy rules and exemption from US federal law. Independence would make Puerto Rice a sovereign nation, and we know what statehood would mean.


If passed, the recent bill would give Puerto Rico three of these options, namely statehood, independence, and free association. 


The United States must act to stabilize the territory it has held for over a century. Puerto Rico must either be given greater protection under the Constitution or a path towards independence. It's degrading and inappropriate for Puerto Ricans to be treated as second-class citizens.


In the early 20th Century, the Supreme Court's "Insular Cases" justified the denial of equal Constitutional rights between states and territories because the latter were "inhabited by alien races" that could not conform to "Anglo-Saxon principles" because of cultural and racial differences. This language is antithetical to the values of our country. Though contemporary defenses of Puerto Rico's territory status aren't so blatantly racist, the demeaning implications of being a second-class citizen remains. 


We allow Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, so we should treat them fully and equally as Americans. Any of the three options granted by the April bill would suffice. By granting free association, we could maintain close political ties with Puerto Rico for economic and military matters. Statehood is another viable option for giving Puerto Rico the institutional dignity it deserves. But if we cannot promise a more just system than the status quo, the United States should begin weaning Puerto Rico off to be an independent nation. 


Regardless of which path is chosen, it's undeniable that Puerto Rico's current status is intolerable. It seems to me that a change in our relationship with Puerto Rico is a necessary step in freeing our justice system from the legacy of colonialism and imperialism. It would be another step in allowing our imperfect country to realize its admirable values. 


The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual author


Sources


Acevedo, Nicole. "Bill to Resolve Puerto Rico's Territorial Status Reintroduced in the House." NBC News, 20 April 2023, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/puerto-rico-status-bill-house-reintroduced-territory-rcna80628


Bonilla, Y. "Puerto Ricans Deserve Better Than Separate and Unequal." New York Times, 23 May 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/19/opinion/puerto-rico-supreme-court-social-security.html


Cheatham, Amelia. "Puerto Rico: A U.S. Territory in Crisis." Council on Foreign Relations, 29 Sept. 2022, www.cfr/backgrounder/puerto-rico-us-territory-crisis


Muniz, Norberto. "The Unfinished Debate on the Political Status of Puerto Rico and Its Relationship With the United States." SALPAL | Georgetown Lawhttps://www.law.georgetown.edu/salpal/the-unfinished-debate-on-the-political-status-of-puerto-rico-and-its-relationship-with-the-united-states/. Accessed 1 Sept. 2023. 


Peon, H. "It Is 2020, and Puerto Rico Is Still a Colony." Harvard Political Review, 22 Nov. 2020, https://harvardpolitics.com/puerto-rico-colony/

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