On Thursday, a letter was sent to the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), and its ranking member, Bruce Westerman (R-AR), from a bipartisan coalition of 51 organizations advocating for Puerto Rican statehood.
“Just over one year after the historic 2020 election we are writing to urge you to respect and take immediate action on Puerto Rico’s vote for statehood,” the letter stated. “We represent the majority of the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico who voted on November 3, 2020, in support of full equality and democracy through statehood.”
“This was the third time in the last decade where island residents have been formally asked what future political status they prefer, and each time ‘statehood’ has gained the most votes. The majority consensus is now clear.”
In November 2020, a non-binding plebiscite of voters in Puerto Rico resulted in a 52.34% margin for statehood with 47.66% voting against statehood as a viable status option. Since then, two separate congressional bills —a statehood one and a self-determination one— have gotten more than 170 bicameral and bipartisan cosponsors combined. Both bills are still in committee with no clear indications that they will move to an actual vote.
The coalition, led by the Puerto Rico Statehood Council and the National Puerto Rican Equality Coalition, among others, are pressing the committee “to either immediately hold a markup vote on H.R. 1522” —otherwise known as the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, a bill introduced in the House in March and sponsored by Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL)— “or to quickly submit and markup a consensus bill that offers Puerto Rico voters a direct and implementable choice on statehood and the other constitutionally viable non-territory option which is independence or independence with a pact of free association.”
As an unincorporated territory of the United States, the U.S. Congress is the ultimate power in Puerto Rico, with the Natural Resources Committee serving as the designated body focused on matters in Puerto Rico and other territories. The committee is also in charge of Indian Tribal affairs. Laws begin as bills in such committees, which debate, amend, and eventually hold “a markup vote” on whether to send a bill to the floor of their respective chambers for consideration.
“Of the two bills that address Puerto Rico’s political status currently under consideration by your Committee, H.R. 1522 and H.R. 2070, Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, only H.R. 1522 represents a viable path forward,” the letter stated. “H.R. 1522 respects the will of the majority of U.S. citizen voters in Puerto Rico about their future political status by providing a constitutionally valid and implementable path to admission as a state of the Union. H.R. 1522 establishes the terms of admission as a state to the Union for Puerto Rico, and if island voters re-confirm their choice to become a state in a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote, it implements that option after a brief but reasonable transition period. This process has clear precedent, having been done most recently with Hawaii and Alaska on their path from territory to statehood.”
“On the other hand,” the letter continued, “H.R. 2070 ignores the local votes that have already happened and fails to deliver a clear path to solve Puerto Rico’s territory status. The bill calls for a non-binding status convention composed of newly elected local delegates, supervised by a federal negotiating commission, to present a potential multitude of status options to voters with no certainty or guarantee that the proposed status option eventually selected by voters will ever be accepted by Congress. The unprecedented process proposed by H.R. 2070 fails to set up a clear timeline, opening the door to endless debate and delays.”
The authors of the letter point to two congressional hearings held in April and June of this year, during which committee members heard testimony from current and former Puerto Rico government officials, as well as a number of legal and economic scholars and members of Congress, who discussed the merits of and gave context to both bills.
“Following the first hearing, the Committee sought an advisory analysis from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on both legislative proposals,” the letter stated. “The DOJ found that H.R. 1522 was the only constitutionally viable proposal before the Committee that would provide the voters of Puerto Rico a clear path for determining their future status recommending only minor clarifications which can easily be addressed during a markup.
“Alternatively, the DOJ found that H.R. 2070 lacked the constitutional foundation to be enacted into law as written.”
When Grijalva released the DOJ analysis of both bills earlier this year, the DOJ said that when it comes to H.R. 2070, the department “agrees that the people of Puerto Rico should be allowed to choose whether to become a nation independent of the United States, become a state within the United States, or retain the current status of a territory. Insofar as H.R. 2070 would facilitate a choice among those three options, which we believe are the three constitutional options available to Puerto Rico, the Department supports the bill.”
The authors argue that by limiting Puerto Rico’s status options to three —statehood, independence, or the status quo, which the authors reject as well— the Justice Department “effectively eliminated the need to hold a status convention,” as proposed by the self-determination bill.
“Since its introduction last March, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, H.R. 1522, has continued to gain support from bipartisan co-sponsors in the House, with the last few being added as recently as November,” George Laws García, executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, told Latino Rebels. “Although H.R. 2070, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, was originally introduced with more co-sponsors, they haven’t added any new support since last April, and now support for the statehood bill has surpassed that for H.R. 2070. Clearly, the momentum is on the side of the statehood bill.”
The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act is sponsored by Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ).
“Currently, H.R. 1522 has the votes to pass in the House Natural Resources Committee, but after top legal scholars and the USDOJ revealed the constitutional flaws in H.R. 2070, the bill by Rep. Velazquez has little to no chance of passing the Committee,” Laws García said. “Chairman Grijalva is left with two options: either hold a markup vote on H.R. 1522 to allow it to proceed to the House floor, or negotiate and pass a new compromise bill. Our position is that if he should proceed with a vote on the statehood bill, or, if the Committee chooses the compromise bill path, then it should be a direct choice by island voters on the two constitutionally viable non-territory options: statehood or independence.”
“This moment is different than past legislative efforts on Puerto Rico status,” Laws García added, “because Chairman Grijalva is resolved to take action, and now House Majority Leader Hoyer is directly engaged and has committed to getting a bill passed the House during this session of Congress.”
On November 19, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Día, reported that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) is leading talks on a compromise bill between the two legislative proposals.
“This means Puerto Rico has a real window of opportunity to get legislation enacted next year,” Laws García said. “The letter demonstrates that support for Puerto Rico’s statehood movement exists beyond any partisan divides stateside or on the island. It also shows that the statehood movement is opening space to break the historic stalemate on Puerto Rico status, and is willing to support compromise legislation as long as voters can choose directly between the only real and viable options to the failed territory status of statehood or independence.”
Puerto Rico has been a colony of the U.S. since 1898.