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Legislation Promotes Statehood for Puerto Rico

Written by Ann Shibler on April 27 2010.

Both Americans and Puerto Ricans are not informed as to the ramifications of H.R, 2499, introduced in May of 2009 by Pedro Pierluisi, (D-Puerto Rico) with 181 cosponsors.

Puerto Rico is currently a self-governing U.S. commonwealth having a representational form of government found in two legislative chambers with authority over its own internal affairs. Puerto Ricans are exempt from having to pay U.S. federal income taxes and do not vote in presidential elections, but the United States controls trade, foreign relations and commerce, legal procedures, Social Security benefits, etc. They have non-voting representation in Congress, but they are defended and protected by the U.S. Armed Forces.

Three times in the past 43 years Puerto Ricans have voted against becoming the 51st state in the Union, the last time being 11 years ago. But this time the bill is rigged to eliminate the commonwealth option and grant either full statehood, or total independence.  Sen. Jose Hernandez-Mayoral of the island’s minority Popular Democratic Party said, “Behind this innocuous bill lies a fully thought out assault on Congress to designate the island the 51st state.” “With the commonwealth option out of the ballot, statehood is finally, albeit crookedly, assured a victory.”

Hernandez-Mayoral is basing his statements on the details of the bill that would allow a yes-or-no vote on whether to maintain the “current political status.”  This sounds innocent enough until the second part of the legislation comes into play; a second vote would have to be administered, this one giving Puerto Ricans no option but statehood or full independence if the majority express dissatisfaction with the current political status. Even if there is no dissatisfaction and the “current political status” is favored, every eight years henceforth from the passage of H.R. 2499 the Puerto Ricans must conduct another plebiscite on the matter.

The New Progressive Party (PNP) is the majority party in Puerto Rico’s legislature. The PNP, known by its Spanish acronym, is radically pro-statehood. Right now the PNP is driving bills through Puerto Rico’s legislature that would require a vote on statehood before the end of this year. The PNP has removed the commonwealth option from the plebiscite or referendum. With the option gone, statehood is a certainty, as the island nation simply could not afford its own independence. And, only 34 percent of the vote is needed to achieve statehood. That means only 1/3 of the population, hardly a consensus, could determine a very different economic and political future, even cultural future, for Puerto Rico.

At first glance it’s a little difficult to understand why Puerto Rican politicians want to take this route, and why Democrats in the U.S. Congress -- dems outnumber bill supporters almost 3 to 1 -- are so much in favor of Puerto Rican statehood.  But Roberto G. DePosada a former president of the Latino Coalition and a senior adviser to the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders helps to dispel our confusion. In an op-ed he says:

One reason is that Puerto Rico’s government is deeply in debt and its economy is weighed down by a bloated public employment sector. Its PNP-led government is desperate. It recently had to furlough 30,000 government workers, and it hopes for a bailout from the U.S. Treasury that it could not hope to get as a commonwealth.

Language in the referendum bill’s rationale is clear: “The economic model under the unincorporated territory [e.g. Commonwealth] political system has collapsed and the government has not been able to guarantee the right to work of thousands of public employees who now find themselves in the unemployment line after being laid off.”

DePosada also believes the plan is to have Puerto Rico achieve statehood and then by sending its newly chosen delegates -- 2 senators and six or seven representatives -- to Congress they will be seated under the same strategy that Tennessee used in 1796 as evidenced by promotors of PR statehood. Anyone who denounces such an action will be labeled as racist given Puerto Rico’s Spanish heritage, so few congressmen will have the courage to object.

Glaringly obvious is that Democrats in Congress who are speedily pushing this bill through would like nothing better than to have Puerto Rico admitted to the Union with the probability of picking up more democratic seats. Because of Puerto Rico’s population, they could pick up many electoral votes as well, since more than 22 other states have smaller populations, which could in turn swing an election.

On the other side, Puerto Ricans would also be subject to the full IRS code -- the surprise of the ever increasing tax burden would hit citizens hard and most likely adversely affect the already high unemployment rate there. Having to help pay for America’s gargantuan deficit and the obscene national debt may not be a good selling point, if the island citizens know and understand it. Many from the island also believe their culture and language would be under assault by being so intensely integrated into American culture.

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wa.), who also believes that statehood is the sole purpose of H.R. 2499, had some enlightening perspective on this issue in a Q&A article:

Would Puerto Rico statehood mean they would get seats in Congress? Puerto Rico has a population of four million people – as a state, they would receive two U.S. Senators and 6-7 House seats. But as long as there is 435 seat maximum in the House, if Puerto Rico receives 6 seats then other states expecting to gain a seat after the 2010 census would lose representation.
If both Spanish and English are the official language of Puerto Rico, how would that work if it became a state? When the House considered a similar bill in 1998, a vote on the issue of English as the official language was allowed, but it’s unknown whether current House Democrat leaders will allow a similar vote this time.
Would a new state add costs to the federal government? A new state would come with significant costs – spending that would measure in the billions of dollar a year.
Shouldn’t the people of Puerto Rico be allowed to vote to express their views on their future political status? I’m very sympathetic to allowing the people of Puerto Rico to express their views – yet they are free to hold such a vote anytime they choose to conduct one.  If a Congressionally-sanctioned vote is going to be held, it must come with an open, thorough understanding of what independence or statehood would mean to Puerto Rico and the existing 50 states.  This approach of voting first and answering questions later is exactly backwards.  Furthermore, it makes no sense that H.R. 2499 allows not just residents of Puerto Rico to vote, but extends voting privileges to anyone in the other 50 states who was born in Puerto Rico.  Why should someone who has lived and voted for decades in Alabama or Wyoming be given special status over their neighbors to vote on whether Puerto Rico becomes a state?

Eddie Garcia of the National Advisory Board of ProEnglish thinks that Puerto Rican statehood would deal a major blow to English as the common language of the United States. And he reminds us that this bill does enjoy wide bipartisan support, with many Republicans signing on to the measure (57 cosponsors) “to show that they’re ‘pro-Hispanic,’” as anything less would be politically incorrect. With 60 to 80 percent of the people non-English speaking, the cost of translating speeches, bills, documents, treaties, etc., on the floor of Congress into Spanish would also be a huge cost factor for Americans to consider.

The people of Puerto Rico have never before clamored for statehood, nor are they doing so now. Many are fiercely proud of their commonwealth status, which is really the best of several scenarios they could have been left with. They are free to travel to the states to earn a living or for other various reasons, and free to go back home at any time. They don’t pay federal income taxes but can collect Social Security benefits and limited welfare benefits.

So, it is the politicians who are using this very opaque, not transparent, legislation as a means to whatever ends they envision for not only Puerto Rico and the United States, but also for the political dynamics this situation might bring with it in the future.

Puerto Rico is a beautiful island with charming people of diverse heritages. They fought in U.S. wars valiantly, as many a war story can attest to. They are predominantly pro-family with a culture they openly celebrate in faith, music, art, literature, etc. Their cities are clean and modern, the country having made some economic gains in the last several decades, but are now suffering from the devaluing of the U.S. dollar. What the people might not be realizing is once statehood is granted to them any dream of independency they once cherished would be lost to them; they would be permanently tied to the economic, political, social and religious climate of the United States.

Contact your congressmen and send a message that you are unwilling to have them support such a bill until all the political, economic, and cultural details are out on the table, for both Americans and Puerto Ricans. Remind them to oppose H.R. 2499 on the grounds that it is a very bad move in the present economic and financial climate; the financial drain on the rest of the states and the possible political consequences preclude Americans from being in favor of statehood for this island nation of Puerto Rico at this time. After all, shouldn’t both Puerto Ricans AND Americans have a say in the matter?

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