President Obama signed legislation this morning awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Borinqueneers, the 65th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army. The Borinqueneers, composed of Puerto Rican soldiers, overcame racial discrimination and served with distinction beginning in World War I. The unit is especially noted for its valor and bravery during the Korean War.
“Segregation… set them apart from their fellow soldiers,” explained the President, “but their courage made them legendary.”
In his remarks, the President said that Puerto Rico is “part of” the United States. Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States that has not been incorporated into the U.S. constitutionally rather than a part of the U.S., according to the U.S. Supreme Court. But it is a part for the purposes of most laws and it is a part of the American political family. As previously reported in the PUERTO RICO REPORT, the close integration of Puerto Rico into the nation represents an intertwined U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship on many levels.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted while serving as a substitute judge on the Federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals, “although Puerto Rico is not a state in the federal Union, ‘it…seem[s] to have become a State within a common and accepted meaning of the word.'”
Justice O’Connor’s statement while serving on the Third Circuit, however, does not override Supreme Court cases from the turn of the 20th century, known as the Insular Cases, which concluded that Puerto Rico is not actually “a part of” the United States. As Lana Birbrair explains in the Harvard Law Today blog, “The Insular Cases eventually settled the question by holding that the newly acquired territories belonged to, but were not a part of, the United States.”
The Insular Cases reasoning has been widely criticized as racist. At a recent forum at Harvard Law School, First Circuit Judge Juan Torruella explained that the Insular Cases “represent classic Plessy v. Ferguson legal doctrine and thought that should be totally eradicated from present-day constitutional reasoning.” Columbia Law School professor Christina Duffy Ponsa similarly pointed out that both sides of the Insular Cases debate were “saturated with racist attitudes” as one side sought to protect people deemed unfit to govern themselves while the other side was trying to avoid having to admit States which would include people unfit for equality in the United States.
President Obama’s statement today cannot alter the Supreme Court’s language of over one hundred years ago, but it does demonstrate different attitudes at the highest levels of the U.S. Government. The President of the United States today recognized – with respect – the role of Puerto Rico within the United States more broadly defined.