Puerto Ricans often have the experience of being inaccurately described as immigrants or foreigners even though the people of Puerto Rico have been citizens since 1917. Often the problem is identified as a reflection of racism or ignorance about geography.
The recent experience of a teacher from Washington, D.C., confirms that the problem is part of the uncertainty of non-state relationships. Ashley Brandt tried to board a plane on the way home from vacation. She handed over her boarding pass and her drivers license — which happened to have been issued in the District of Columbia.The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent questioned whether she could board, since D.C. is not a state, and asked her for her passport. Brandt, who was traveling to Arizona, didn’t have a passport with her. The agent called over a supervisor who assured the agent that a D.C. license is just as good as one from a state, Brandt boarded her place, and the incident became just one more funny air travel story.
Except that Brandt’s boyfriend tweeted about the event. According to a story in The Washington Post, the tweet was met with an outpouring of “me too” responses not only from other residents of Washington, D.C., but also of Puerto Rico and Guam.
The Congressional Delegate for D.C., Eleanor Holmes Norton, was quickly in communication with the TSA. She was assured that a memo had gone out reminding agents that the nation’s capital was in fact a part of the United States and that its residents did not have to have a passport to visit the states. TSA Administrator John S. Pistole assured Norton that there would be a call on the subject with leaders of security nationwide, according to Congressional Quarterly’s Homeland Security publication.
The underlying problem is not that a TSA agent made an error. It’s that the relationship of the United States with its possessions is confusing. The fact that so many people are confused by the meaning of “Commonwealth” in Puerto Rico’s name (though not by the same word in the names of the Commonwealths of Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, and so forth) shows the lack of clarity in being a territory or a district rather than a state.
As long as this confusion continues, all Americans should be concerned. Norton hopes that Brandt’s incident with the TSA agent will help shine a spotlight on the problem as far as D.C. is concerned. Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) supports D.C.’s desire to become a state and recently said so in a tweet; Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) recognized Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory in a new bill. Commentators have pointed to the problem of taxation without representation for D.C., describing the capital as a “colony” just as Puerto Rico is frequently described as a colony.
In the 21st century, there are few remaining excuses for continuing such confusion.