Congress is allowed to treat Puerto Rico, and the other U.S. territories, differently from the States. The Supreme Court in the Insular Cases famously ruled that the U.S. Constitution did not apply to the people in the island territories in exactly the same way as it applied to the people living on the U.S. Mainland.
But one of the big differences between the States and the territories is about to be removed: people from the territories will be able to apply for Rhodes Scholarships. The Rhodes Trust explains the change clearly:
All U.S. citizens and certain legal permanent residents of the United States who attend universities within the U.S. Territories (American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) will become eligible for the first time to participate in the U.S. Rhodes Scholarship competition.
The change will take place in 2016, just a few weeks from now. At the moment, only residents of the 50 States and of Washington D.C. are eligible. Next year, residents of Puerto Rico who attend universities there will be eligible.
One resident of Puerto Rico has been honored as a Rhodes Scholar. Hila Levy attended the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, so — like all the residents of Puerto Rico who choose to live in a State — she was eligible for all the rights and privileges of U.S. citizens.
The Rhodes Scholarship program, founded in 1902 by Cecil J. Rhodes, gives full support to 89 scholars at Oxford University in the UK each year. 32 countries are eligible, but the original founder specified in his will that only the 50 States, not the United States as a whole, could supply candidates.
Rhodes also specified that candidates should be chosen on the basis of, among other things, “outstanding scholastic achievement, moral force of character, leadership, and commitment to service.” These things are not limited to residents of the 50 States.
The Rhodes Trust has not explained the reason for the change, but it seems possible that increased awareness of the equal rights issues faced by residents of Puerto Rico (where the vast majority of U.S. territory residents live) could have led to this change. Resolution of the other inequalities Puerto Rico faces — the inability to vote in presidential elections and unequal funding in federal programs, for example — will have to wait for the resolution of Puerto Rico’s status through statehood.
It’s exciting that people in the States are becoming more informed about these issues. Contact your legislators and help them realize the importance of equal rights for Puerto Rico.