On Thursday, the members of Congress negotiating a compromise bill on Puerto Rico’s future status released an early draft of such a bill, outlining the process by which the people of Puerto Rico would decide the islands’ status and how the transition to whichever status chosen would be carried out.
The Puerto Rico Status Act brings together two competing bills in the House Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees insular affairs, including Puerto Rico: the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, first introduced by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) in March 2021 and reintroduced with slight modifications a year later; and the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, sponsored by Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL).
The self-determination bill has 76 co-sponsors, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and other members of the progressive “Squad,” plus Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Ro Khanna (D-CA), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), and Chuy García (D-IL).
The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), has nine cosponsors, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
The statehood bill has 80 co-sponsors, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL), Ritchie Torres (D-NY), Ted Lieu (D-CA), María Elvira Salazar (R-FL), and Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), along with Puerto Rico’s Republican non-voting member of Congress, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón.
The Senate version, introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), has five co-sponsors, including Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA).
Despite years of fierce contention between the two Congresswomen, who seek separate resolutions to the status question —Velázquez preferring free association or independence, González-Colón pushing for statehood— the two were able to agree on two key terms: that options provided by the bill exclude any territorial status (decolonization) and that the bill bind Congress to carry out the results.
Here are some key takeaways from the compromise bill:
Deciding Puerto Rico’s Status
A plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s status will be held on November 5, 2023, presenting all eligible voters in Puerto Rico with three options: statehood, free association, or independence. The option that wins a simple majority will be carried out.
The ballots will be in English and Spanish, with the effects and consequences of each status defined in clear and concise language.
Should no option win a majority of votes, a runoff plebiscite will be held on March 3, 2024, between the top two options.
Each camp has made a major concession here, with the statehood side agreeing to a plebiscite with three options instead of a simple yes-no vote on statehood as the statehood bill wanted. On the other hand, the self-determination side has agreed to said plebiscite instead of holding a status convention as their initial bill called for.
Voter Education Campaign
The Elections Commission will conduct a “nonpartisan voter education campaign through traditional paid media.”
As with the ballots, educational materials will be available in English and Spanish.
“At a minimum, the voter education materials shall address for each option—(1) taxation of persons and businesses; (2) international representation; (3) citizenship and immigration; and (4) access and treatment under Federal law and programs,” the bill reads.
The bill also allows for the appropriation of funds for the Electoral Commission to carry out said education campaign and both the initial plebiscite and, if need be, a runoff plebiscite.
If Independence Wins
No later than six months after certification of the plebiscite results, the legislature of Puerto Rico will conduct a special election for delegates to a convention for the drafting of a constitution.
“All eligible voters may vote in the election of delegates to the constitutional Convention,” reads the bill.
No later than three months after the special election, the chosen delegates will meet at a place and time determined by the legislature, and that meeting will mark the start of the convention.
The constitution of an independent Puerto Rico must guarantee “the protection of fundamental human rights, including—(1) due process and equal protection under the law; (2) freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion; (3) the rights of the accused; (4) any other economic, social, and cultural rights as the constitutional Convention may deem appropriate and necessary; and (5) provisions to ensure that no individual born in the nation of Puerto Rico shall be stateless at birth.”
The convention has one year to draft a constitution, at which point the draft will be submitted for approval or rejection by the eligible voters of Puerto Rico in a special election.
Should the voters of Puerto Rico reject the constitution drafted by the convention, the entire process will be repeated beginning with the election of delegates.
Should the voters ratify the constitution, the governor of Puerto Rico, no less than a month after ratification, will call for an election of officers required by the new constitution (president, etc.) in accordance with the election procedures outlined in the constitution. The election of officers will take place no less than six months after ratification.
Joint Transition Commission
No less than three months after the start of the constitutional convention, the president of the United States and the president of the convention will each appoint an equal number of members to a Joint Transition Commission “responsible for expediting the orderly transfer of all functions currently exercised by the Federal Government in Puerto Rico, or in relation to Puerto Rico to the nation of Puerto Rico, and shall recommend to Congress any appropriate legislation to carry out such transfer.”
Transfer of Power
No later than one month after the official certification of the election of officers, the president of the United States will formally proclaim the transfer all federal authority, rights, and property to the government of Puerto Rico.
Everything granted to the U.S. government by the 1898 Treaty of Paris will be handed over to the Puerto Rican government.
The presiding officer of the constitutional convention, with the advice of the head of state elected under the new constitution, will decide the date on which the new government takes office.
All legal proceedings currently before the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico will be transferred to corresponding Puerto Rican courts.
Any Puerto Rican who was a U.S. citizen before independence will remain so afterward, but any Puerto Rican born after independence will not be a U.S. citizen—unless born to parents who were born and lived in one of the 50 states, in accordance with current U.S. citizenship laws.
The citizens of Puerto Rico will not be subject to U.S. immigration laws for a period of 25 years following independence, meaning they can travel to and work in the United States. After the 25-year transition period, the citizens of Puerto Rico who are not U.S. citizens will be subject to U.S. immigration like all other immigrants.
Social Security and Other Benefits
All federal benefits enjoyed by individual citizens of Puerto Rico before independence —“such as rights and benefits for veterans or relatives of veterans of the Armed Forces of the United States, retired Government employees, or beneficiaries of old age, disability, or survivors’ insurance benefits under the Social Security Act”— will continue as normal after independence.
“All contributions made by employees and employers in Puerto Rico to the Social Security system” will be transferred to the Puerto Rican government for the sole purpose of establishing its own social security system.
During the 10 years following the proclamation of independence, the U.S government will provide the Puerto Rican government with annual block grants amounting to the total funding of all programs that currently extend to Puerto Rico, or the total of such programs in the year prior to independence, “whichever is greater.”
After the 10-year period, the annual block grants will decrease by a rate of 10 percent each year.
If Free Association Wins
There is a lot of overlap here with the independence scenario, for obvious reasons, though there are a few key differences.
Not much difference here, as Puerto Rico would be a sovereign nation in association with the United States—as with Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands, authority over which was given to the U.S. government by the United Nations after World War II.
A key difference is that the convention would have two years to draft a constitution, instead of one.
Bilateral Negotiation Commission
This is akin to the Joint Transition Commission under the independence scenario, only instead of the president of the convention appointing commissioners, the entire convention would by majority vote choose the five members to represent Puerto Rico.
The president of the United States would appoint five members to negotiate on behalf of the U.S government, nominating one to the rank of ambassador.
The Bilateral Negotiation Commission would be tasked with formulating the Articles of Free Association between the United States and Puerto Rico no later than two years after the start of the constitutional convention.
The Articles of Free Association must be ratified by both the eligible voters in Puerto Rico and the U.S government, and it may be terminated at will by Puerto Rico or the United States at any time.
Anyone born in Puerto Rico to U.S. citizen parents after the Articles of Free Association goes into effect would be granted U.S. citizenship at birth if one parent resided in the United States.
Any citizen of Puerto Rico would be exempt from U.S. immigration laws as long as the Articles of Free Association remains in effect.
Social Security and Other Benefits
Same as with independence.
Same as with independence.
If Statehood Wins
Should the Electoral Commission certify the results of the status plebiscite in favor of statehood, the president of the United States would declare a date within one year of the results on which Puerto Rico is to be admitted into the Union “on an equal footing with all other States.”
From that day forward, Puerto Rico would be known as “the State of Puerto Rico.”
As with the other states, the constitution of the State of Puerto Rico would “not be repugnant to the Constitution of the United States and the principles of the Declaration of Independence.”
“The office of Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico shall cease to exist upon the swearing in of the first Representative from the State of Puerto Rico to the House of Representatives,” the bill reads.
As with the other states, the State of Puerto Rico would be granted two senators.
As far as the House of Representatives, “the State of Puerto Rico shall be entitled to the same number of Representatives as the State whose most recent Census population was closest to, but less than, that of Puerto Rico.” Puerto Rico’s representatives would be added to the current number in the House.
After the 2030 census, the size of Puerto Rico’s House delegation would be reapportioned as with all the other states.