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The Enduring Legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson in Puerto Rico

“[I]n view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

Justice John Marshall Harlan, dissenting opinion, Plessy v. Ferguson

Last week former San Juan Mayor Dr. Hernan Padilla called on President Obama to address the issue of Puerto Rican statehood in his State of the Union address. Dr. Padilla spoke January 29 at an event hosted by the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles to launch their new initiative to encourage conservatives to support Puerto Rican statehood. The group plans to advocate for Congress to pass legislation to allow the people of Puerto Rico to decide the future status of the island. Dr. Padilla said admission of Puerto Rico as a State of the Union will grant Puerto Ricans full equality in citizenship under the Constitution. He argued that Puerto Ricans should have the same rights, responsibilities, and opportunities as the Americans living within the 50 States.

Dr. Padilla said Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory deprives Puerto Ricans of fundamental rights, including equal protection of the laws, participation in the election of the President, and proportional representation in Congress. He also noted that the same “segregationist” Supreme Court that created the concept of an unincorporated territory through the Insular Cases also issued the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. The Plessy decision upheld state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of “separate but equal,” which the Supreme Court later rejected in Brown v. Board of Education. Dr. Padilla argued that it is time for the concept of an unincorporated territory, like the doctrine of separate but equal, to be discarded. He said Puerto Rico’s current status resembles segregation and reflects “geographic discrimination” and a “deficit of democratic rights.”

Joining Dr. Padilla at the event were Luis Fortuño, former governor of Puerto Rico; Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform; Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; Niger Innis, national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality; and Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. In his remarks, Governor Fortuño emphasized that granting Puerto Ricans equal rights is a moral imperative for the United States, which is a country based on the rights of its citizens. He and Dr. Land argued that it was never the intent of the country’s founding fathers to have colonies or two classes of territories, but nevertheless there are currently two classes of U.S. citizens—those living in the mainland and those living in Puerto Rico. Dr. Padilla ended his remarks on a similar note and stressed that “the United States is one nation with one constitution and only one citizenship for all Americans.” Dr. Padilla’s written remarks are available here.

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