Puerto Rican Statehood
Tim Schroeder, December 2016
The Spanish-American War was a relatively short war that occurred in 1898. It began with the declaration of war on Spain by the United States on April 25 and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on December 10. The United States was the clear victor and Spain lost control over the remains of its overseas empire including Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands, Guam and other islands. While this war may seem irrelevant and conducted ages ago, it remains highly pertinent to current American affairs and discussions concerning U.S. citizenship and who is a recipient and who is not. The struggle for Puerto Rican statehood illustrates these concerns to the present time.
The aftermath of the Spanish-American War left the United States with a host of questions with debatable answers, especially concerning Puerto Rico. Historically, “Until 1900 all U.S. territories were located on the North Americans continent, just like the States of the Union. As the American people moved west new territories populated mostly by U.S. citizens were formed. The U.S. territories that became states, like Ohio and Louisiana, were incorporated into the U.S. under the Constitution, with temporary territorial government until admitted by Congress as states”. However, an historical precedent was established with the acquisition of islands from Spain by the United States in 1900, including Puerto Rico, which were known as “insular” territories because islands are insulated geographically from the mainland by water. These new territories were not populated by U.S. citizens and the rights of these people were defined by federal territorial law passed by Congress.
Despite the federal territorial law, it was challenged in U.S. courts, which ultimately ruled in 1901 that these insular territories would remain unincorporated until U.S. citizenship was conferred upon them by Congress. This brought up a major problem as the U.S. Constitution would not apply to define the rights of the people in these unincorporated territories without the conferment of U.S. Citizenship. In what became known as the Insular Cases of 1901, a new class of territories was created “under U.S. rule, were populated by non-citizens and governed under federal statutes without direct application of the Constitution”. The ruling became that the Insular Cases made unincorporated territory status indefinite until U.S. citizenship was bestowed on the territory in question. In addition, the period of temporary government before statehood is also indefinite; the status of the territory is not permanent until it is admitted to the union.
Fortunately, the 1917 law passed by Congress, known as the Jones Act, bestowed U.S. citizenship upon Puerto Rico. Section 5 of the law provides that: “All citizens of Puerto Rico…are hereby declared and shall be deemed and held to be citizens of the United States”. However, the Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens in name only as the Supreme Court ruled in Balzac v. Puerto Rico (1922) that Congress could govern U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico without applying the U.S. Constitution in the territory. This monumental legal contradiction and error signified that “for the first time U.S. citizenship status and rights in a territory were separated from the Constitution”.  As a result of this paradox of a Supreme Court case ruling in 1922, the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico are ruled by U.S. Congress and are only afforded limited autonomy. The implication of the Balzac ruling is that there is no legal or political difference between the conferral of citizenship and non-citizenship for those occupying U.S. territories.
While the Balzac ruling was a legal and political disgrace to the people of Puerto Rico, there had been previous territorial precedents that should be have been applied to Puerto Rico as seen in the cases of Louisiana, Hawaii and Alaska. Louisiana was the first territory of foreign soil with a majority of Spanish and French citizens. Despite the diversity of religion, language and traditions that separated itself from the other 17 states of the Union, Louisiana had been granted U.S. citizenship under the 1803 Louisiana Purchase treaty with France. Statehood for Louisiana was achieved on April 30, 1812 and with that, equal rights and the duties of citizenship under the Constitution were secured. Next, Alaska was purchased by the United States from Russia in 1867 and, like Louisiana, it was foreign soil; it also contained a large non-citizen population. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Rassmussen v. U.S. (1905) revealed “that conferral of citizenship by the treaty incorporated Alaska into the union, giving inhabitants of Alaska the rights of citizenship under the Constitution”. Lastly, Hawaii was annexed as a U.S. territory to the nation in 1898. Furthermore the 1900 Organic Act incorporated Hawaii into the Union as well as granting U.S. citizenship; U.S. citizens of Hawaii had rights of citizenship under the Constitution as it applied to the territory. Under the Jones Act and before the Balzac ruling of 1922, “the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico were entitled to the same rights of citizenship under the Constitution as U.S. citizens in Louisiana, Alaska and Hawaii”.
A plebiscite was held in 2012 asking whether Puerto Ricans desired to continue to be a territory and if not, what legal option they would choose instead. From the vote, the results revealed that 54% did not wish to exist as a territory any longer and 61.2% chose statehood as a legal and political replacement. Unfortunately the 2012 vote was not respected and was largely ignored. In spring of 2013, President Barack Obama proposed that Puerto Rico hold a plebiscite on its current commonwealth status; this would allow voters to express support for one of the following legal options: independence, remaining as a commonwealth with no changes, statehood and other statuses. In order to provide the capital to administer and announce the will of the people of Puerto Rico, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee approved $2.5 million on July 17, 2013, as part of their fiscal 2014 budget for the holding of said plebiscite in Puerto Rico. Despite the failure of the U.S. Senate to approve the money, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in Congress, Pedro Pierluisis stated “I am confident that if and when the two chambers reconcile their bills, the Senate will recede to the House and the language will be included…things will become clearer in the coming months”. The governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Alejandro Garcia Padilla is in full favor of the plebiscite and is fully expecting the plebiscite to be inclusive of all status options and of a fair nature. No matter what the results of the plebiscite suggest, for the status to be implemented for Puerto Rico would require an approval of the status change by majority votes in the U.S. House and Senate committees as well as the full House and Senate; it would also need to be approved and signed by the president at the time.
Legislation that would provide for a federally-sponsored vote on Puerto Rico’s admission as a state manifested in the Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act in both houses of Congress. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) introduced the Senate bill (S.2020) in February 2014 which is identical to the House bill (H.R. 2000) introduced in May 2013 by Puerto Rico resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, a member of Congress. Among Congress’s findings listed in the Senate bill were the incorporation of Puerto Rico as a territory of the United States in 1898, its grant of U.S. citizenship in 1917 along with the fact that it is given authority over local matters but remains subject to the powers of Congress under the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Under Article IV, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, it is written “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 Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has a population of approximately 3,700,000 residents and they do not have a democratic form of government at the national level because the U.S. citizens who reside in the territory are ultimately disenfranchised. They are not involved in the election of the President and Vice President of the United States, no Puerto Rican representatives exist in the United States Senate and only one representative of Puerto Rico is included in the House of Representatives and this representative can only vote in committees in the House of Representatives. Any representation in U.S. Congress is heavily diluted as the one representative included has lesser abilities and potential than Congressmen in the House of Representatives from the fifty U.S. states.
The admission of Puerto Rico as a state would lead to a plethora of results. A permanent union with the other states would be established, the U.S. Constitution and all of its provisions would be applied to Puerto Rico just as it is applied to the States, those born in Puerto Rico would become U.S. citizens as dictated by the U.S. Constitution, it would be treated equally in terms of federal laws, an equal treatment of program and tax laws would be implemented and a substantial increase in Puerto Rican representation. This would be manifested with the introduction of two Senators in the U.S. Senate, the number of representatives proportional to the population of Puerto Rico would be instituted in the U.S. House of Representatives and the election of President and Vice President would be instituted in Puerto Rico by a number of votes in the Electoral College derived from the combined number of Senators and Representatives. Ultimately, Puerto Rico as a state would have permanent, not temporary or indefinite, authority over all matters not reserved to the federal government or the people. Puerto Rican Representative Pierluisi insisted “Those of us who seek equality and justice through statehood understand that this struggle requires passion and determination, but that it also demands strategic thought and action…the filing of a Senate companion bill to H.R. 2000 demonstrates that the momentum in favor of statehood continues to build. We are closer than ever before to achieving our goal.” Unfortunately, The Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act (S. 2020) of the 113th Congress (2013-2015) died in Congress and was not enacted.
The question of Puerto Rican statehood still lingers as an unresolved socio-political and legal issue for the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico. What began as a part of the Spanish Empire has grown into a territory with limited self-government and an American federal government oversight. Despite the conferment of U.S. citizenship on the people of Puerto Rico, this translates to very few tangible results in terms of Puerto Rican representation in American government. Without the designation of statehood upon Puerto Rico, it will always suffer from a severe lack of representation and involvement in the affairs of the United States.
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