Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi ended his remarks at the Democratic National Convention last night with the assurance that President Obama “will stand with” Puerto Ricans “the day they choose to have the same rights and responsibilities as their fellow American citizens.”
Imbedded in this statement is the recognition that not all U.S. citizens have equal rights and responsibilities today. Most do, but not all. The most prominent exception is that of American citizens who live in a territory.
The notion of equal rights and responsibilities for all citizens is a quintessentially American idea and ideal. It has been pursued often throughout U.S. history, from women’s suffrage to civil rights. Equal rights and equal responsibilities are generally not considered controversial. In fact, the 2012 Republican Party Platform contains the same phrase the Democratic congressman used last night, affirming the right of Puerto Ricans “to seek the full extension of the constitution, with all the rights and responsibilities it entails.”
If granting equal rights and responsibilities for all U.S. citizens is viewed as a worthwhile goal, the question remains over how Puerto Ricans can achieve it. The upcoming plebiscite vote in Puerto Rico on election day, November 6th, provides the voters of Puerto Rico with an opportunity to change its relationship with the rest of the United States through its four political status options: territory, independence, sovereign associated free state and statehood.
Under the current territorial status, the people of Puerto Rico do not have equal rights or responsibilities. They have some rights and some responsibilities, but not all. In addition, despite proposals offered and requests made over the years, they do not have rights that exceed those of other U.S. citizens.
If Puerto Rico were to become independent, its residents would have no rights and no responsibilities as a part of the United States. A permanent guarantee of U.S. citizenship, for example, would be lost.
The Sovereign Associated Free State option similarly has no guarantees of equal rights and responsibilities. Residents of the three nations that have this relationship with the U.S. today (Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, known collectively as the Freely Associated States (FAS)) are subject to the terms of compacts between the two nations. These compacts are renegotiated and otherwise change over time. For example, a 1996 federal law eliminated FAS eligibility for numerous federal health, education and social programs, including Medicaid and Medicare, which had been contained in their compacts. FAS residents are not U.S. citizens, although they can migrate freely to states, which many have done. The U.S. has full military authority on these islands.
If Puerto Rico were to become a state, its residents would be entitled to all of the rights of U.S. citizenship and subject to all of the related responsibilities. There would be no more negotiations as to how – or whether – to include Puerto Rico in federal laws and programs. Puerto Ricans would have to pay taxes but also qualify for the refundable tax credits enjoyed by lower income workers and, presumably after a transition period, fully qualify for Medicare and Medicaid benefits. There would also be certainty that the rights and responsibilities held by Puerto Ricans are permanent.