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PRSA Supporters in Congress Seek a Voice for Puerto Ricans: “Nothing About Me Without Me”

A significant number of United States Senators expressed support for the Puerto Rico Status Act (PRSA) last week during the bill’s Senate introduction.  The Senators’ remarks centered on a common theme:  how important it is for the people of Puerto Rico to have a voice in their own future.

As Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz (D) explained “one of the most important principles in policymaking…is: ‘nothing about me, without me.'”  For too long, the Senator explained, the U.S. government had done things “about” Puerto Rico without providing the people of Puerto Rico with “a path to change that.”  The new Senate proposal, he explained, would provide that path.

The bill, he emphasized, is about fairness and equality, which are, in the Senator’s words, “the bedrocks of American democracy.”

“The people of Puerto Rico have been deprived of equal rights and representation for more than a century,” he stated.  “They are Americans, but they cannot vote for President and they don’t have voting members in the Senate and the House” with real life implications.

The proposal calls for a federally-sponsored, self-executing plebiscite offering voters a choice among three status options: statehood, independence, and independence with free association.

Cosponsors of the Puerto Rico Status Act Emphasize Their Support

The Senate’s Puerto Rico Status Act (S 3231), the companion bill to a House proposal passed by the House of Representatives last year and reintroduced in May as H.R. 2757,  calls for a federally-sponsored plebiscite offering voters a choice among three options: statehood, independence, and independence with a free association arrangement.

S 3231 was introduced with 20 sponsors, the largest number of original cosponsors any bill on Puerto Rico status has ever had. Sen Sherrod Brown (D-OH) signed on a few days later, making the total as of this writing 21.

“It has been more than 100 years since Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens. They deserve an overdue, permanent, and democratic answer on their political status,” said lead sponsor Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM). “It’s our moral responsibility to make sure the millions of American citizens living in Puerto Rico can decide their own future. That’s what this legislation does.”

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA), one of the bill’s lead cosponsors, said that “despite contributing billions of dollars in federal taxes each year, Puerto Ricans are denied voting representation in Congress and access to crucial programs funded by their tax dollars like SNAP and Supplemental Security Income. This is a living contradiction that cuts to the essence of who we are as a democracy — and we must do better. I will keep fighting alongside Senator Heinrich and my Senate colleagues to give Puerto Rico the right to determine its future.”

“Puerto Rico’s political status is a decision for the people of Puerto Rico,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) in a statement. “Too often, the Puerto Rican community in Connecticut has watched the federal government fall short of supporting their friends and family on the Island when faced with devastating natural disasters and economic crises. This bill is a commonsense compromise that would ensure Puerto Ricans are no longer relegated to second-class citizenship and are granted the long overdue right to self-determination.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) also made a statement: “The people of Puerto Rico deserve the right to decide their own future, and I’m proud to introduce this commonsense legislation supporting a transparent, democratic process for the island.”

“This important legislation empowers the people of Puerto Rico to decide what future they want for themselves – bringing together a wide variety of stakeholders on one path forward,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said, emphasizing that the people of Puerto Rico “deserve the full benefits of citizenship.”

“For 106 years, the people of Puerto Rico have been citizens of the United States, yet they still live in political limbo. It’s long past time that those millions of U.S. citizens living and working in Puerto Rico have the opportunity to decide their future status,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). “That’s why I’m proud to support legislation that lays out a process for the people of Puerto Rico to determine the future of the island’s political status. It’s a fundamental matter of fairness that these U.S citizens have the right to decide whether they want full representation in Congress and equal access to essential federal services.”

Governor Pierluisi, House PRSA Leaders Applaud Senate Progress

In addition to the U.S. Senators supporting the bill, both the Governor and Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico spoke in support of the Senate bill.

Governor Pierluisi explained that the Senate bill responds to a “moral imperative” and that the cosponsors were “on the right side of history.”  He emphasized that the bill “answer[s] the call to provide  full democracy to the more than 3.2 million American citizens in Puerto Rico in accordance with the US Constitution…fulfilling the democratic values upon which the nation was founded [and] which must be available to all of its citizens.”

“Puerto Rico’s current status,” he said, “is unworthy of America.”

Resident Commissioner Gonzalez Colon noted that the current territorial status of Puerto Rico is not tenable and praised the bill for providing the people of Puerto with a proposed referendum ballot that limits voter options to only those that are viable under the U.S. Constitutional, alluding to previous plebiscites  containing ballot options that were unconstitutional.

And Yet More Confusion over “Commonwealth”: Puerto Rico’s Plebiscite History

Several more members of the House of Representatives made statements of support for the bill, including Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Darren Soto (D-FL), and Steny Hoyer (D-MD).

“For far too long, the people of Puerto Rico have been deprived of the self-determination that they and all people deserve,” said Rep. Hoyer, who led the negotiations on the bill last year as House Majority Leader.  “We owe it to Puerto Ricans to bring an end to their island’s 124-year-old status as a U.S. territory and to grant them control over their island’s political future. As Majority Leader, I was proud to bring the Puerto Rico Status Act to the House Floor two times in an effort to give them that opportunity. I remain committed to working with Puerto Rico’s elected officials and community leaders to ensure that the people of Puerto Rico have full autonomy and democratic control over their status.”

“After more than one hundred years of colonial rule, Puerto Ricans need a democratic mechanism to determine their own future,” stated Rep. Velazquez. She added:  “The status quo is unsustainable, unfair, and undignified, and Congress must move toward decolonization. I commend Senator Heinrich and my other Senate colleagues who have joined us in this effort by introducing the Puerto Rico Status Act. The people of Puerto Rico must decide their future, and Congress has the responsibility and power to facilitate that process.”

The Biden Administration has issued a statement in support of the bill.

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