Rep. Pierluisi Speech at Georgetown University

Rep. Pedro Pierluisi spoke earlier this week at Georgetown University, starting off his remarks with a strong statement in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico:

I want to begin by expressing my conviction that statehood for Puerto Rico is neither a liberal cause nor a conservative cause. The issue transcends-or at least ought to transcend-partisan politics, because statehood advocates come in all political stripes. For me, as for so many others, this issue is about right versus wrong, justice versus injustice, and equality versus inequality. It raises fundamental questions about the nature of our democracy and about the meaning of American citizenship.

Pierluisi continued with an examination of the history of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. He pointed out that territories had in the early history of the United States been understood to be possessions of the United States which were on their way to statehood. This changed, he said, with the acquisition by the U.S. of territories which had belonged to Spain. These territories, including Puerto Rico, were felt to be too far distant from the United States, geographically and culturally, to be clear candidates for statehood.

In the first decades of the 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a series of controversial cases regarding its island territories, holding that Puerto Rico had been acquired by the United States, but had not been “incorporated” as part of the U.S. In short, the Court created a black-and-white world of “incorporated” and “unincorporated” territories. An incorporated territory was one on the path to statehood in the longstanding American tradition. An unincorporated territory like Puerto Rico was one whose ultimate status-statehood or nationhood-Congress had yet to decide.

Many critics of these cases took comfort in the assumption that Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory would be short-lived, lasting only until the federal government granted U.S. citizenship to island residents-which would presumably place Puerto Rico on the path to statehood-or granted the island its independence. In 1917, federal legislation was enacted to extend citizenship to individuals born in Puerto Rico. In a decision handed down five years later, however, the Supreme Court held that the grant of citizenship did not demonstrate intent by Congress to incorporate Puerto Rico.

Rep. Pierluisi outlined the various decisions and steps that have led to the current form of government in Puerto Rico, and explained,

Now, this may come as a surprise to some of you who have heard Puerto Rico described as a “commonwealth” and concluded-not unreasonably-that this word means that Puerto Rico has some unique status that is neither a state nor a territory. But this is simply not so. The term “commonwealth” does not denote any particular status, as demonstrated by the fact that four U.S. states and one of Puerto Rico’s sister territories also call themselves “commonwealths.” When people ask what Puerto Rico’s status is, the only correct answer is an unincorporated territory of the United States.

Rep. Pierluisi then articulated his objections to the territorial status of Puerto Rico. First, he pointed out that residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections. Representative democracy does not extend to the island of Puerto Rico. He continued,

Second, territory status denies Puerto Rico equality under the law. The federal laws that treat residents of the territory worse than residents of the states are too numerous to count, but they include nearly every social safety-net program. The courts uphold such laws so long as there is any rational basis for the disparity. The federal government can meet this test by arguing that equal treatment would be expensive or that residents of Puerto Rico do not pay federal taxes on income they earn on the island. The tax argument will succeed despite the fact that Puerto Ricans are required to pay all federal payroll taxes and the fact that nearly half of all households in the states do not pay federal income taxes either. In short: territory status gives the federal government a legal license to discriminate against Puerto Rico-and the federal government often uses that license.

“The truth of the matter is,” said Pierluisi, “that residents of Puerto Rico have been U.S. citizens-and U.S. soldiers-since 1917, but our citizenship is second-class.” He pointed out the economic disparity between Puerto Rico and all the states of the union, describing the lower income, the higher unemployment, and the fact that these economic inequalities have persisted over decades while governments have changes, with different parties in power both in Puerto Rico and in the United States. “Clearly,” he said, “the economic problems in Puerto Rico are structural and chronic, not cyclical and temporary.”

Rep. Pierluisi went on to say that these and more facts have persuaded him, along with 54% of the voters in the November, 2012, plebescite, that the current territorial status is not in the best interests of Puerto Rico. He then discussed the option of nationhood:

Independence and free association are two sides of the same coin, and that coin is nationhood. Both are dignified options that would provide Puerto Rico with full self-government at the national level. But we need to be very clear about what these status options could mean for quality of life on the island.

After pointing out the circumtances of other small Caribbean nations, Rep. Pierluisi explained why he favors statehood:

While independence would dissolve our union with the United States, and free association would weaken our union, statehood would perfect our union. Statehood would deliver to Puerto Rico what all free people deserve: full voting rights, full self-government, and full equality under the law. The state of Puerto Rico would have far more political power than the territory of Puerto Rico-in the form of two U.S. senators, five representatives in the U.S. House, and seven votes for president and vice president in the Electoral College. At the same time, in part by ensuring that Puerto Rico would receive equal treatment under all federal programs, statehood would strengthen Puerto Rico’s economy and improve our quality of life, as the most recent examples of Alaska and Hawaii demonstrate. Indeed, I have never heard an objective observer argue otherwise

Rep. Pierluisi pointed out the advantages to the United States in having Puerto Rico strong and secure. Further,

From a moral vantage point, if Puerto Rico wants statehood, I cannot identify any principled basis upon which Congress could decline that petition. How could the United States government, a champion of democracy and self-determination around the world, disregard those principles with respect to its own citizens, without losing credibility both at home and abroad? This is especially true given the rich and remarkable service that generations of men and women from Puerto Rico have rendered to this nation in the armed forces.

Rep. Pierluisi reminded his audience that every president from Truman on has supported self-determination for Puerto Rico, and that Puerto Rico has voted in favor of statehood:

This referendum marked the first time voters were directly asked whether they want Puerto Rico to remain a territory. The leaders of the Popular Democratic Party, which favors the status quo, strongly urged a “Yes” vote. Nevertheless, the “No” vote won by eight percentage points. Of critical importance, there were more votes for statehood on the second question than there were votes for the current status on the first question. For the first time in history, there are more people in Puerto Rico who want the island to become a state than who want it to remain a territory.

After the vote, the White House issued a statement recognizing the importance of the results. It said: “The results were clear, the people of Puerto Rico want the issue of status resolved, and a majority chose statehood in the second question. Now it is time for Congress to act and the Administration will work with them on that effort, so that the people of Puerto Rico can determine their own future.”

Rep. Pierluisi drew attention to President Obama’s proposal to fund educational materials and another vote in Puerto Rico to “resolve” the status question. The Representative pointed out that another possible resolution would be to respect the November vote, and announced that he will be propsing legislation to make Puerto Rico a state.

Read the full text of Rep. Pierluisi’s speech.

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