A year ago, U.S. citizens in the 50 states and the District of Columbia cast their ballots in the presidential election. The same day, their fellow citizens in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico — who can’t vote for president, senators or voting members of the House — participated in a referendum on the island’s status.
The first question asked voters if they want Puerto Rico to remain a territory, and 54 percent said “no.”
The second question asked voters to express their preference among the alternatives to the current status — statehood, independence, or nationhood in a free association with the United States — and 61 percent of those who chose an option picked statehood. The number of votes for statehood on the second question exceeded the number of votes for territory status on the first question.
Thus, a majority of my constituents reject territory status, a supermajority prefer statehood over separate nationhood, and more voters want Puerto Rico to become a state than to continue the status quo.
In the year since the referendum, evidence has continued to mount that Puerto Rico will not achieve its potential as long as it remains a territory. The island’s economic problems are structural and enduring. They can be managed with capable local leadership. But they can only be overcome through a change in status.
Puerto Rico’s economy has lagged well behind the states for decades. A major reason is that, as a territory, Puerto Rico is denied billions of dollars a year from federal programs. To compensate, the territory’s government has borrowed heavily. With the local economy shrinking, our bonds are now trading at near junk levels.
Island residents aren’t powerless in the face of these challenges. They vote with their feet, relocating to the states. In the past dozen years, our population has fallen by over 4 percent. A poll this week revealed that nearly four of every 10 Puerto Ricans say they are “pretty likely” or “very likely” to move to the states for better opportunities.
Upon taking up residence in Florida or Ohio, my former constituents are entitled to vote for their national leaders and to equal treatment under federal law. This system is illogical, harming both Puerto Rico and the United States as a whole.
Following the November vote, the ball moved into Washington’s court, because a change in a territory’s status can’t occur without action by Congress and the president.
In April, in recognition of the historic nature of the referendum, the Obama administration requested an appropriation to conduct the first-ever status vote sponsored by the federal government. The provision was approved by the House Appropriations Committee, confirming that this issue transcends partisan politics. Its fate will be known in the coming months.
In May, I introduced HR 2000, the Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act. My legislation outlines the rights and responsibilities of statehood, provides for an up-or-down vote in Puerto Rico on the territory’s admission as a state, and prescribes the steps the president and Congress would take if a majority of voters favor admission. With 125 bipartisan cosponsors, H.R. 2000 has more support than 98 percent of bills introduced this session. Efforts to obtain a Senate companion bill are ongoing.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.