Should Puerto Rico Be Part of the United States?

Trick question.

Puerto Rico is already a part of the United States in the sense that it belongs to the United States. The question is not whether to include Puerto Rico in the United States – that issue has already been decided. The question is how Puerto Ricans should be included in the country in which they are already a part.

  • No passport is needed to travel to and from Puerto Rico within the United States.
  • Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. They are not considered immigrants when they move within the United States.
  •  More Puerto Ricans serve in the military than residents of just about any state. Residents of Puerto Rico have made thousands of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and almost 90 service members from Puerto Rico have lost their lives.
  • There are roughly a million more Puerto Ricans living in the states than in Puerto Rico. The 2010 Census documented 4.7 million Puerto Ricans living in the states; 3.7 million people live on the Puerto Rican islands.
  • Because Puerto Rico is part of the United States, no special security measures are required when boats or planes arrive or leave from the island.
  • Puerto Rico is considered domestic for matters involving international trade and currency.
  • U.S. federal law governs Puerto Rico. There are federal courts in Puerto Rico. Its decisions may be appealed to the First Circuit federal appellate court and, ultimately, the Supreme Court.
  • Even though Puerto Ricans cannot vote for President, they can influence Presidential primaries. Delegates from the territory attend the Republican and Democratic conventions and help select their respective Party’s eventual nominee.

The United States should carefully consider what it means to possess a territory that lacks democratic rights and freedoms:

  • Puerto Rico’s 3.7 million residents are represented in Washington, D.C. by a sole, non-voting Resident Commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives. They have no Senators. The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico cannot vote for President. Even Puerto Rican veterans and active members of the U.S. armed forces cannot vote for their Commander-in-Chief.
  • Puerto Ricans automatically have full voting rights if they move to a state. Conversely, individuals born in a state automatically lose voting rights if they move to Puerto Rico.

In the words of federal First Circuit Judge Torruella:

“We cannot overlook, and in fact we should take judicial notice of, the many official actions of the United States in promoting democratic elections throughout the world-not the least of which is its support for the recently held national elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, places where thousands of U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico serve, at least twenty-five* of whom have lost their lives in support of the rights of the citizens of those countries to vote. The situations in Iraq and Afghanistan present the further anomaly of two classes of U.S. citizens, both fighting and dying side by side, only one of which was able to vote for its Commander in Chief.”
* More recent data counts closer to 90 servicemen and servicewomen of Puerto Rican descent among the fatalities of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The people of Puerto Rico have sought federal guidance to change Puerto Rico’s status as a territory. Puerto Rico’s legislature, governors, other elected officials, community leaders and non-profit groups have all explicitly requested Congress to assist them in creating a process to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status dilemma, and Congress has recognized that Puerto Ricans are unsatisfied with the status quo.

Puerto Rico’s exclusion from the United States democratic process has been a source of embarrassment to the U.S.

  • On June 20, 2011, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization adopted a consensus text calling on the United States to expedite a process that would allow “Puerto Ricans to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination[.]”  A delegate from Cuba introduced the measure, and representatives from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, Syria and Iran spoke in support of it. This was not the first time the Special Committee highlighted the lack of democratic freedom in Puerto Rico. Similar texts have been endorsed by the Special Committee for years.
  • When the cold war was going strong, future President Ronald Reagan observed, “Fidel Castro hardly lets a speech go by without denouncing “Yankee imperialism” in Puerto Rico and calling for its total independence from the United States.” He concluded that “we cannot expect our foreign policies to be enjoying prestige around the world – attracting support instead of collapsing – when we are having serious problems with our closest neighbors.”

The flag of history’s greatest champion of democracy has flown over the Puerto Rican islands for over 100 years. The current territorial status of Puerto Rico doesn’t fit with our goals and beliefs as a nation. It is time to bring democracy to Puerto Rico.

Read statements from the people of Puerto Rico making the case for federal leadership on the status issue.

National State and Grassroots leaders have recognized the leadership obligation of Congress to resolve Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory.  Read those statements here.

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