The Implications of being a U.S. Territory
On June 11, 2017, Puerto Rico held a plebiscite in which 97% of the voters rejected the island’s current status as a U.S. territory in favor of statehood.
An independence/free association option received 1.5% of the vote, and 1.3% of the voters chose for Puerto Rico to remain a U.S. territory.
Statehood opponents dismissed the vote due to low voter turnout. Statehood proponents called on Congress to act, noting a long history of plebiscite votes rejecting Puerto Rico’s territorial status.
As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico can request statehood, but ultimately only Congress has the power to determine Puerto Rico’s future.
While the issue of statehood – commonly known as Puerto Rico’s “status” – stagnates, implications are felt on a daily basis. Disaster aid for hurricanes and earthquakes trickles out slowly from Congress. The federal Financial Oversight and Management Board exercises authority in Puerto Rico’s governance. Medicaid funding and nutrition assistance, which are not limited in states, are capped in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s young men and women continue to serve in the U.S. armed forces with distinction. Puerto Ricans are voting for statehood with their feet, moving to the 50 states in record numbers, where they automatically receive the full panoply of democratic rights that are – with the exception of Puerto Rico - the hallmark of the United States.
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About Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. The U.S. acquired Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, and the Island has belonged to the United States ever since.
In 1917, Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens. Everyone born in Puerto Rico is a citizen of the United States.
But Puerto Rico is not a state. It continues to be a territory. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has “plenary” – complete – power over Puerto Rico, as is clear by the authority of the unpopular and congressionally created Federal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) . It is legal for Congress to treat Puerto Rico differently from states, and Puerto Ricans do not share in the same rights and responsibilities as their fellow U.S. citizens.
There are no senators or voting congressional representatives for Puerto Rico. The Island has just one non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress. The people of Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections; they have no electors in the Electoral College.
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Puerto Ricans serve in the U.S. military at higher than average rates and yet they cannot vote for their Commander in Chief.
Puerto Ricans fight for democracy around the world and yet do not experience democracy at home.
With so little representation, and no legal requirement that Congress treat Puerto Rico equally, it’s no surprise that Puerto Rico receives less federal attention, protections, and resources than the states.
Puerto Rico is also not a country. While Puerto Rico fields successful sports teams in international sporting events and competes in international beauty pageants, those teams and individuals could also be a part of U.S. delegations. The government of Puerto Rico simply doesn’t have the stature of a nation in the foreign arena, whether at the United Nations, World Bank, or in bilateral discussions with sovereign nations.
And, while the title of Puerto Rico includes the word “commonwealth” (just like the titles of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky), that word has no legal meaning in the United States. Puerto Rico is simply a territory belonging to the United States.