A resolution of the Florida State House of Representatives demonstrates the new potential political power of U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico who are now voters in Florida and other states. As the 2018 national mid-term election and state general elections approach, political parties and candidates are recognizing addressing the recovery and future status of Puerto Rico is important to ethnic Puerto Rican voters in Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts and other states.
That trend is most pronounced in Florida as the state most impacted by the incapacity of the “commonwealth” regime of territorial government in Puerto Rico, after its 2015 bankruptcy and natural disasters that followed in 2017. In addition to tens of thousands of U.S. citizens moving to Florida since the hurricane, Florida is home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Puerto Ricans who relocated from the territory before the local government’s fiscal collapse and hurricanes.
Like over 5 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rican ethnicity scattered throughout the nation, the new arrivals are now voters with fully equal democratic rights of citizenship denied to American citizens in the territory under the failed “commonwealth” regime of territorial government.
It is in that context Florida House Resolution HM 147 makes a strong argument for Congress to formally incorporate Puerto Rico into the union as a step toward statehood. Puerto Rico is currently classified as “unincorporated” territory with limited rights of citizenship under the U.S. Constitution and federal law.
Incorporation less colonial than “commonwealth”
Incorporation leading to eventual future statehood would result in equal application of federal laws and greater rights of citizenship until full representation in Congress and the Electoral College that come only with statehood is achieved.
This is good time to make the argument that Congress should at the very least make Puerto Rico an incorporated territory. In the past the declining anti-statehood party has done a good job scaring statehood voters and statehood party leaders away from incorporation by claiming it was an overtly colonial status with taxation but not representation.
That was when the anti-statehood party could still make the ideological argument that commonwealth was a status of equal dignity along with statehood and independence, and that it would culminate in an equally democratic status through restraints on federal power requiring local consent to federal laws applicable in the autonomous associated state.
Then the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in the Sanchez Valle case of 2016 that commonwealth is a status without the dignity compared to statehood. The high court specifically declared “commonwealth” can never culminate in an equal and fully democratic or constitutionally defined status as long as it remains a territorial political status.
Even more dramatically, the U.S. Congress suspended the commonwealth constitution under the PROMESA bankruptcy workout law, without consent of the commonwealth regime such less the 3.5 million U.S. citizens of the territory. This demonstrated that statehood supporters had been right and the anti-statehood party had been wrong for 70 years, because the court ruled “commonwealth” has not ended or changed the status of Puerto Rico as a territory subject to unilateral application of federal law without local consent.
That means statehood leaders now can not argue correctly that incorporation is less colonial than commonwealth, which also allows taxation without representation. Worse yet, “commonwealth” denies the equal rights and benefits under most federal laws that currently are denied but come with incorporation and equal application of most federal laws.
The anti-statehood party will now argue that incorporation also can result in indefinite denial of the right to independence, and that even statehood may not be constitutionally guaranteed by incorporation. Like the taxation without representation argument, the issue of indefinite denial of independence or even statehood is even more true of territorial status under the commonwealth regime of territorial government.
Incorporation will lead to statehood based on self-determination
In our nation’s history, no U.S. citizen populated territory petitioning for statehood has been denied incorporation that culminated in statehood. Thirty-two territories have followed that path, most less ready than Puerto Rico today, even after the hurricanes of 2017.
Puerto Rico is the last large and populous territory ready for transition to statehood, but even the other four small territories with U.S. nationality and citizenship have the option of petitioning for integration into an existing state if territorial status is no longer preferred.
Still, given the results of the 2012 and 2017 votes in Puerto Rico for statehood and the local government’s formal petitions to Congress for admission to the union, it is vital and imperative that any incorporation act adopted by Congress include a declaration of national policy leading to statehood in the future. That will ensure that Congress is committed to defining the terms for admission, so that a final act of informed self-determination can establish the democratic predicate for permanent union.