Throughout United States history, we have seen how on occasion the admission of new states into the Union have occurred in pairs. For example, the states of Florida and Texas were admitted together in 1845 and most recently, the states of Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959.
With the recent election of President Joe Biden, in addition to the Democratic legislative victory to retake control of the U.S. Senate, the potential admission of two new states with Washington, DC and Puerto Rico has become a national topic.
According to recent U.S. census data, there are close to 3.2 million American citizens that live on the island of Puerto Rico and more than 5 million that live in the continental United States such as Florida, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The latest arrival of Puerto Ricans to the mainland came after catastrophic Hurricanes Irma and María hit the island.
On the other hand, it is estimated that more than 700,000 citizens reside in the federal capital. The District of Columbia did not have presidential electors until the enactment of the 23rd amendment to the United States constitution in 1961, and its residents did not acquire a non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives until 1970.
As opposed to the citizens in Puerto Rico, with this amendment, the residents in D.C. can vote for president. However, as is the case on the island, they lack fundamental representation in Congress, which would provide them at least one member in the House of Representatives and two senators.
In Puerto Rico, on three occasions during the past decade, Puerto Ricans have expressed support in favor of political equality through statehood for the island. The first vote occurred on November 6, 2012, when Puerto Ricans opened the way towards a new chapter of its political history: statehood. Since 1952, the island’s current territorial status —Free Associated State or “Estado Libre Asociado” (ELA)— had never been questioned nor defeated in any electoral event.
On that day, voters formed a majority of 970,910 Puerto Ricans (statehooders, independence supporters, sovereignty supporters and decolonization supporters) to represent 54% of the vote outside of party lines and defeat the current political status. Additionally, 834,191 voters (61.11%) elected statehood as the option of change for the first time in our history.
For the second time, on June 11, 2017, Puerto Ricans ratified to the United States and the world their desire for decolonization, change and integration to the Union. Voters selected statehood with 97% of the vote.
For a third time, last November, Puerto Ricans —in a sixth and historic plebiscite— 52% voted for the “yes” to statehood option or admission to the Union.
In addition to Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia had a local vote without the support of Congress but approved by the local commission. A majority of D.C. voters chose statehood.
As a state, Puerto Rico would have around four representatives and two senators in Congress. D.C. would have at least one member in the House of Representatives and two senators, which together would represent a total of around nine additional members who can make the difference during the consideration of crucial measures for the future of the nation.
With Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, supporters of making D.C. and Puerto Rico states have the historic opportunity to achieve political equality.
Seven months after the House of Representatives approved for the first time a statehood bill for the District of Columbia, mayor Muriel E. Bowser affirmed that the unprecedented assault on the U.S. Capitol increases the urgency of the cause. The residents of D.C., she said, “risked their lives on January 6 to defend a Congress that does not grant it electoral representation.”
The same could be said of the dozens of Puerto Ricans of the island’s National Guard, who were mobilized to support said mission.
You see the soldiers in this picture? They are National Guardsmen from Puerto Rico, citizens, coming to Washington, DC to defend a Commander in Chief they could not vote for, a democratic federal republic in which they are denied representation in Congress or a presidential vote. pic.twitter.com/hnnpl3qSoB
— Guillermo Mena (@GuilloMena) January 15, 2021
There is no doubt that both Puerto Rico and D.C. still face a series of obstacles, not only within a thinly divided Senate, but with public opinion as well. Those who oppose D.C. becoming a state have argued that the condition of statehood cannot take place without a constitutional amendment. They argue that the founders intended the District of Columbia to be the center of the federal government, not a state. A recent Gallup poll revealed that two-thirds of Americans oppose D.C. statehood. In the case of Puerto Rico, although public opinion is more favorable, there is some division among Democrats in the House and Senate, who although firmly support statehood for D.C., they seem to not see the 3.2 million American citizens on the island as equals, who like those in D.C., have second-class citizenship.
What Has to Happen?
First, not all Senate Democrats have signed on to support statehood for both territories and not all support the elimination of the filibuster, including moderate senators such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. In addition, some Republican senators like Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, who have expressed their verbal support for Puerto Rico statehood, have yet to officially cosponsor legislation presented in the Senate.
Second, due to the filibuster —which requires a supermajority vote (60 votes) in many legislative bills, instead of a simple majority of 51 for legislation to be approved— a simple majority of Democrats in the senate would not be enough to approve statehood: both bills would also need the support of at least 10 Senate majority Republicans. As opposed to Washington, D.C. which enjoys support exclusively from Democrats, Puerto Rico has some bipartisan support for statehood.
Supporters of D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood should pressure the Senate to vote and put an end to the filibuster rule, which would mean that 50 votes in favor of statehood along with Vice President Kamala Harris’ vote as the tie-breaker would be sufficient to pass both measures.
Supporters of statehood for both territories should use the argument of how this is a moral matter of human and civil rights, where to this day, an unjust lack of electoral representation and discrimination exists based on the geographic location of a citizen. There is no doubt that President Biden would sign both statehood admission bills if they arrive to his desk because he has expressed his support toward the admission of D.C. and Puerto Rico as states.
Both D.C. and Puerto Rico represent underserved communities. D.C.’s residents are close to 50% African-American, and Puerto Rico’s population is close to 100% Hispanic, which would make it the country’s first completely Hispanic state. As the next states of the Union, D.C. and Puerto Rico can become a powerful political force to move forward the inconclusive agenda of underserved communities and the nation.
Both territories should also seek support from civic and political action groups in the states and from congressional delegations that represent their communities. In the case of Puerto Rico, it can be states with a high Puerto Rican/Hispanic population like Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and California. In the case of D.C., in much the same way, both should convert their cause into a national one, touching the heart of the inconclusive agenda of American democracy.
Finally, what is fundamental is that it be understood how D.C. and Puerto Rico have legitimately voted for statehood. Congress, along with other proponents of other agendas, should not ignore this mandate and instead respect the will of the people. D.C. and Puerto Rico should also join each other along with the support of other territories in this fight to achieve political equality and together remind Congress that the fight for equal treatment and civil rights of American citizens comes first, and not economic status or political convenience. This will also serve to revindicate the dignity of close to 4 million American citizens (many who have already paid the ultimate price) who deserve to be treated with respect and equality.
Anthony Carrillo Filomeno, Esq. is. a licensed attorney in Puerto Rico, Co-founder of the National Puerto Rican Equality Coalition (NAPREC) and a 2020 Joe Biden presidential delegate.