What Does the Immigration Debate Have to Do with Puerto Rico?

One of the biggest political controversies in the United States right now is on the subject of immigration. DACA, the border wall, the visa lottery, the end of Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from El Salvador and Haiti, “chain immigration,” tighter asylum laws, merit-based visa regulations, travel bans — there are so many working parts in this controversy that Congress is having a hard time getting anywhere in deliberations. Americans across the nation are also concerned about all these issues.

Immigration doesn’t have any special connection with Puerto Rico, any more than with any of the states of the Union. People born in Puerto Rico have been U.S. citizens at birth since Puerto Rico was granted citizenship in 1917, more than 100 years ago.

But Puerto Rico and immigration are connected politically, in the minds of voters and legislators.

Solidarity

First, there is the question of appeal to Hispanic voters. More than 27% of all American voters are now Latino, according to the Pew Research Center. Capturing the attention of this voting group is a high priority for every political party and most candidates.

Puerto Rico, including both the status question and disaster support, is an important political issue this year, and one that resonates with Hispanic voters in the states. Immigration is also on the minds of Hispanic voters — ever since 1960, the largest proportion of U.S. immigrants have come to the U.S. from Spanish speaking countries.

The current awareness of what might be called Hispanic issues means that Congress is listening. That makes this a very good time to speak up.

Ignorance

While Hurricane Maria has made more people aware of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, there are still many, many people who are confused. Here are the facts:

  • Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States.
  • While Puerto Rico’s official name contains the word “commonwealth,” there is no legal meaning for the term. Many states are also called commonwealths, and they are no different from any other state. Puerto Rico is no different from any other unincorporated territory.
  • People born in Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States.
  • Since states, rather than individuals, choose the president of the United States, residents of Puerto Rico can’t vote in presidential elections, no matter where they were born.
  • Puerto Rico has just one non-voting representative in Congress, and no representation at all in the Senate. As a state, Puerto Rico would have seven representatives — two senators and three congresspeople.

Unfortunately, there are people who don’t know any of these facts. Some of them think that people from Puerto Rico are immigrants when they move to a state. Since there are people who think this, Puerto Ricans sometimes face the same kinds of problems faced by immigrants. Attitudes toward immigration can therefore affect U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico.

The voters of Puerto Rico have already chosen statehood. The territory of Puerto Rico has already requested statehood. To achieve statehood, Puerto Rico has to become a high priority for Congress. The task before us is to make our fellow citizens and especially our legislators more aware. If connecting the cause of equality for Puerto Rico with immigration can help reach this goal, we should take advantage of the opportunity.

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