Listen to the Voters

Gregorio Igartúa has a simple piece of advice for Congress: “Listen to the voters of Puerto Rico when it comes to the Island’s status.” In an article of this name at Townhall.com, Igartúa referenced President Biden’s remark to Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico. The president said, “If I lived in Puerto Rico, I would vote for statehood.”

“[E]very democratically held election on the island over the past decade has shown that the Puerto Rican people agree,” Igartúa points out. “Unfortunately, some members of Congress claiming to represent the voice of the Puerto Rican people are actively trying to prevent Congressional action on statehood for the island.”

The downsides of territorial status

Igartúa ran through the problems created by territorial status. Puerto Rico has, for example, no voting representation in Congress. The Island also has no votes in the Electoral College, and therefore has no say in presidential elections, even though, as Igartúa says, Puerto Rico lives “under the programs, policies and regulations established by the Executive Branch. And [the fact] that the President is Commander-in-Chief of tens of thousands of Puerto Rican servicemembers who defend America at home and abroad, while being denied full voting rights at the federal level.”

“In addition,” Igartua goes on, “Puerto Rico’s territory status undermines economic development on the island, creating uncertainty for private sector investments because of the political risk of the unresolved status issue. Economic stagnation, as well as the brain drain of people leaving the island in search of better opportunities, has put the island in a perilous economic position. Every day that Congress fails to act, more people leave and the struggle to recover gets harder.”

Congressional interference

Congressional inaction on Puerto Rico’s status is clearly a problem. But Igartua also expresses concern about actions taken by members of Congress.

“Representatives Nydia Velazquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have introduced legislation regarding Puerto Rico’s status that calls for a status convention where delegates from the island debate and vote on status options, present them to voters in Puerto Rico and finally bring their choice to Congress,” he wrote, referencing HR 2070. “But this bill is fundamentally flawed in that the convention could present a status option that is unconstitutional and Congress would be under no obligation to enact the choice of the voters. This would unnecessarily prolong the debate regarding Puerto Rico’s status, and would not guarantee its definitive resolution.”

In fact, referenda during the 20th century sometimes included the unconstitutional option of “enhanced commonwealth.” When that option received a plurality of votes, Congress expressed frustration that Puerto Rico’s voters had been bamboozled by the hoax. They obviously did not take action to change Puerto Rico’s status.

Not only would this bill fail to guarantee a definitive resolution for Puerto Rico’s political status, history shows that an unconstitutional status option cannot become a reality. Congress can’t approve such a status.

In the unlikely event that Congress approved an unconstitutional choice, it could not be implemented.

The Department of Justice has clearly and repeatedly said (as have the other two branches of government) that the only possible non-territorial status options under the U. S. Constitution are statehood and independence. Independence could include a treaty involving Free Association.

Independence or statehood

Independence is about as popular in Puerto Rico as the Libertarian or Green Parties in the States. The most likely outcome of the process described in HR 2070 is therefore a vote for statehood. It might thus lead to statehood, but would delay the process and make it more complicated.

“Not to mention, this bill undermines the legitimacy of our elected officials and devalues the opinion of island residents about the most fundamental aspects of our lives,” Igartua states. “This is because voters in Puerto Rico already went to the polls in 2020 and when they were asked if the island should be admitted to the union as a state, the majority voted ‘Yes.’ This was the third time in a decade that voters rejected the territory and favored statehood.”

HR 2070 has been accused of being simply a strategy to keep holding votes until the outcome is something the congresspeople from New York want. This is not how democracy works.

“It is unacceptable that some in Congress have been looking to elected officials from New York, to decide what to do on Puerto Rico’s status issue, especially when those elected officials don’t represent a single voter on the island, have no accountability to them, and are actively ignoring the will of the voting majority,” says Igartua. “This type of colonial paternalism is particularly grievous when Rep. Velazquez, who has a three decade history of opposing statehood for Puerto Rico, now feigns to argue that her bill is just seeking a fair and just process denying the reality that it is merely an elaborate delay tactic.”

Congressional action

“So I urge Congressional leadership to stop turning to members who illegitimately claim to represent Puerto Rico’s interests without being elected by voters on the island,” Igartua concludes. “We would be better served by having you listen to the majority of island voters who have already chosen statehood, and are ready to elect our own voting members to represent us directly. Congress must end any delay tactics and pass legislation during this session to finally offer statehood to Puerto Rico. Democracy demands it.”

Igartua is an attorney in Puerto Rico. He has brought suit against the United States demanding the right to vote for representation in the federal government.

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