Resolving Puerto Rico’s Political Status Is Also Best Long Term Economic Policy

By Howard Hills*

Recent news reports have compared the daunting fiscal and economic issues facing the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico to the bankruptcy of Detroit.  Any meaningful comparison between Puerto Rico and Detroit would require that we imagine a scenario in which Michigan ceded Detroit to the national government, making the city a Federal reservation governed under arbitrary and inconsistent Federal policies imposed by Washington.  Then imagine that there suddenly were more U.S citizens in Detroit than in 22 of the States of the Union, but they are stripped of voting representation in Congress or a vote for the President.

Then, imagine if Detroit was allowed limited home rule, but only in purely local matters.  All local laws adopted in Detroit would be subject to nullification by Congress, because there would be no rights reserved to the people under the 10th Amendment.  Due process and equal protection rights would not apply to Federal actions, because – as in the case of Puerto Rico – the Congress decides the Constitution itself should not apply.

Instead, Federal laws applied at the discretion of Congress would be supreme, without democratic consent by the governed. Residents of Detroit would be U.S. citizens by birth, but they would not have equal rights and opportunities with the rest of the nation unless they moved to another city in one of the fifty States.

When compared to Detroit in that context, the only real surprise is that Puerto Rico’s economy has been as vibrant and resilient as it has proven to be over the decades, despite the territory’s less than equal and less than democratic political status.

Indeed, were Puerto Rico to enjoy the comparative advantages Detroit still enjoys, including a stable., constitutionally-defined political status, the island territory would be on a trajectory of robust economic recovery and sustainable growth.

Instead, the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico are left with an uncertain political future that discourages investment and impedes Puerto Rico’s economic convergence with the rest of the nation, based on equal rights and duties of U.S. citizenship.

A comparison of Puerto Rico to Detroit based on historical realities underscores the true impact of Federal policies denying equal civil rights for millions of U.S. citizens residing in our nation’s last large and heavily-populated territory.

There are about 3.5 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. Some 1.5 million people born in Puerto Rico have moved to live in the States of the Union to acquire equal rights and opportunity.  They are among five million people of Puerto Rican origin in the States. Thus, Federal policy forces millions of U.S. citizens to move to a State to acquire equal opportunity and benefits and voting rights.

That denial of equal citizenship rights has been Federal policy since 1922, when the U.S. Supreme Court singled out Puerto Rico from all other territories as a Federal reservation in which Congress can rule U.S. citizens without full application of the U.S. Constitution.

Congress and the Federal courts long ago should have rejected that confusing and legally unjustified 1922 ruling, as they did other anachronistic Supreme Court decisions from the same era that denied equal rights.

Like Hawaii, Puerto Rico is a group of islands separated from the mainland by ocean, but for a century it has been within the physical, social, economic, and moral boundaries of our nation — and many legal boundaries, just as surely as any other place in the USA.

As with every territory in U.S. history, only a permanent status with equal citizenship rights will make full economic prosperity possible.

* Lead counsel for territorial status affairs National Security Council, White House (1982-1986); Territorial law advisor U.S. Department of State (1986-1988).  All views expressed are personal opinion of author.

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