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Puerto Rico's Political Status Needs to Change With the Times | Commentary

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.

In June, I testified at the United Nations, expressing faith that the United States would fulfill its legal and moral obligation to help Puerto Rico achieve a democratic and dignified status, now that island residents have withdrawn their consent to remain a territory.

In August, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the referendum. Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said “there is no disputing that a majority of the voters in Puerto Rico ... have clearly expressed their opposition to continuing the current territorial status.” Ranking Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska concurred, saying, “it is clear to me that the majority of Puerto Ricans do not favor the current territorial status.”

Wyden then supplied this much-needed dose of clarity: “For Puerto Rico to meet its economic and social challenges and to achieve its full potential, this debate over status needs to be settled. Puerto Rico must either exercise full self-government as a sovereign nation, or achieve equality among the states of the Union. The current relationship undermines the United States’ moral standing in the world.”

Inertia is a powerful force, but it’s not nearly as powerful as an idea whose time has come. Much works remains to be done, but much progress has been made in the past 12 months. Mindful of the axiom that the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice, I am confident that residents of Puerto Rico will soon cease to be second-class citizens of the world’s most democratic nation.

Pedro R. Pierluisi, a Democrat, is Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in the House of Representatives.

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