George Laws Garcia, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, had the opportunity to join Students for D.C. Statehood of Howard University and Dr. Oye Owolewa, the shadow representative candidate for D.C., in a conversation on statehood. Statehood is not exactly the same for the District of Columbia as for Puerto Rico, but both issues are in the headlines and on people’s minds.
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The conversation began with recognition that being a district or a territory is not the same as being a state.
“Congress has the capacity to legislatively discriminate against territories,” Laws Garcia said. “There has to be specific legislative language that explicitly includes Puerto Rico and/or the other territories, and often the formulas selected for how to treat territories like Puerto Rico are different. Obviously, the difference isn’t to our advantage. We don’t get more money than everybody else.”
Asked about how this discrimination affected D.C. in the pandemic, Owolewa pointed to the difference in funding of coronavirus relief for D.C. compared with the states.
Laws Garcia reminded listeners that this experience, unusual and shocking for the District, is actually the norm for Puerto Rico. “The most significant impact is actually the cumulative impact on our health system’s infrastructure,” he said. “We’ve been getting less funding for our Medicaid recipients and Medicare recipients for the last 40 years, and that means that our hospitals were already weaker, our healthcare community was already smaller — and that’s devastating.”
If statehood is the basis of equality, the next question asked, why isn’t there movement toward statehood?
What are the barriers to statehood?
“There has been movement — it’s just been very slow movement,” Laws Garcia laughed. “Unfortunately the structure of Congress as it currently exists is a reactive body rather than a proactive body.”
Laws Garcia emphasized the differences between D.C. and Puerto Rico at this point. “There is bipartisan support for our statehood admission process,” he said, while D.C. is supported by Democrats. The House actually voted for admission of D.C. as a state, but the vote was along party lines.
He also pointed out that there are economic arguments against statehood for Puerto Rico from people who believe that statehood would be costly for the United States. This is ironic, said Laws Garcia.
“It ends up costing the federal government more money to keep us as a territory, because it limits us from developing to our full economic potential.”
Laws Garcia discussed an additional difference between Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
“Constitutionally, D.C. and Puerto Rico are in different situations,” he said. “There is a clause that specifically discusses the district as the seat of government, whereas Puerto Rico falls under the Territorial clause.”
The territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution says that Congress has the power to make decisions about territories. D.C. is not subject to the territorial clause. Some experts believe that a constitutional amendment would be required to achieve statehood for the District.
“Those who do not support full enfranchisement of all American citizens are going to hang their hat on that,” said Laws Garcia. He pointed out the the White House brought up the issue of the constitutionality of statehood for D.C. after the House passed the statehood admission bill. “The statehood admission clause is pretty simple and straightforward for territories.”
Moving past the barriers
Asked how the two statehood movements can move past these barriers, both the speakers referenced current issues that could bring attention to the human rights concerns involved in the statehood movements.
“The most important thing is to increase the awareness of our fellow citizens in the states,” said Laws Garcia. “The only way D.C. statehood and Puerto Rico statehood are really going to advance is if we can reach out to and tie in with other national issues that residents of the states really care about… so that those citizens can compel their members of Congress to be active supporters of these issues.”
Owolewa agreed. He spoke about the current concern about voting rights and voter suppression. “We have to tie our efforts to what’s going on on a national scale, as well.”
Contact your legislators and let them know that statehood matters to you.