Puerto Rico Status Act Loses Momentum in House

Jul 28, 2022
2:41 PM

Three flags flying above the Fort San Felipe del Morro (El Castillo San Felipe del Morro) in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, From left: the U.S. flag, the Cross of Burgundy —flag of the Spanish imperial army— and the Puerto Rican flag. (palestrina55/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

WASHINGTON — Momentum for the Puerto Rico Status Act has ground to a halt in the U.S. House of Representatives after the island’s resident commissioner, Jenniffer González-Colón (R), was unable to garner more Republican support for the bill she helped negotiate.

“With unified Republican opposition, we’d need every Democrat,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico.

Grijalva says the sudden increase in lobbying against the bill is not about process, as some advocates have claimed, but instead about maintaining the island’s current colonial status.

The Puerto Rico Status Acts represents a compromise between two competing bills—the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act sponsored by Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL) and backed by Resident Commissioner González-Colón, and the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act sponsored by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) and backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

The bill outlines a process by which the people of Puerto Rico would decide the islands’ future status and how the transition to whichever status chosen would be carried out. It includes a plebiscite, scheduled for November 2023, in which the voters of Puerto Rico would be given a choice between three options: “Independence,” “Sovereignty in Free Association with the United States,” or “Statehood.”

Ocasio-Cortez remains undecided on whether she supports the bill she helped negotiate after Democratic Reps. Jesús “Chuy” García (IL) and Rashida Tlaib (MI) —both of whom support the self-determination bill— voted against the bill following last week’s committee markup where 29 amendments were considered.

Some of the amendments proposed by Republican members of the committee included amendments proposed by the committee’s Republican members included a requirement that Puerto Rico’s government operations be in English, the inclusion of the current territorial status to the list of options on the future plebiscite, and a pause in the statehood process until Puerto Rico pays off its public debt.

The amendments were ultimately voted down by Democrats on the committee and Resident Commissioner González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s member of Congress who is afforded a vote on committees but not on the House floor.

Velázquez told Latino Rebels on Tuesday she is still hopeful that Ocasio-Cortez will support the Puerto Rico bill despite the fact that a floor vote initially planned for Thursday has now been postponed to September.

“Apparently there are some people who want for this to remain the same,” said Velázquez of Puerto Rico’s territorial status, which is not an option offered by the new status bill. “We’re gonna be here 100 years from now dealing with the same issue, with the colonial status.”

One of the lobbying groups being blamed for the loss of momentum behind the status bill is Power 4 Puerto Rico, a coalition of Puerto Ricans in the diaspora. The group cites a lack of transparency in the legislative process surrounding the bill and is calling for formal public hearings for members of the Puerto Rican community to weigh in, among other things.

“The Power 4 Puerto Rico coalition and our partners are strongly calling for filling the information holes in the bill before it goes to the House floor,” the group’s director, Erica González, and Federico de Jesús Febles, the group’s senior advisor, told Latino Rebels in an email.

On July 15, Power 4 Puerto Rico sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) urging her “not to let the bill proceed to a committee or House floor vote without prior formal public congressional hearings taking place that are accessible in a Spanish-language format and that address crucial details in this new legislation introduced only a few days ago.”

“In addition to skipping over formal public hearings,” the letter stated, “many in Puerto Rico and the diaspora in the United States are also alarmed at: 1) the scant details in the annexation (i.e., ‘statehood’) option, 2) the lack of clarity on U.S. citizenship under free association, and 3) the imposition of unacceptable conditions under independence.”

Concerning the group’s preference for a status option, the leaders of Power 4 Puerto Rico, which has endorsed the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, say they support “a decolonization process that is open, fair, transparent and democratic —among non-colonial and non-territorial options— with broad participation from Puerto Ricans in the island and the Diaspora.”

“There is no question that Congress can move swiftly on Puerto Rico issues when they want to, just like they did in 2016 with the imposition of an unelected, anti-democratic Junta to rule the island under PROMESA,” the group said, placing blame on the bill’s waning momentum on House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD).

Asked about the group’s funding, González and Febles said Power 4 Puerto Rico stands “in stark contrast with other organizations receiving buckets of cash from conservative, corporate-backed agendas dedicated to undoing Puerto Rico’s institutions and handing the island over to a powerful few.” They included a link to a May 2021 report tying the statehood movement to the Republican Party and pro-business interests in Puerto Rico and the United States.

“To many on the U.S. mainland, statehood for Puerto Rico is seen as a cause of the left. But many of the Statehood Admission Act’s advocates in Washington form a web of right-wing and pro-corporate ties,” wrote Chris Gelardi for The Intercept.

The debate surrounding Puerto Rico’s status has long been contentious, with various groups lobbying for their preferred option. The two most powerful camps are those of the statehood option and the current status quo.

The statehood movement is represented in the islands by the ruling New Progressive Party (PNP in Spanish) —of which Resident Commissioner González-Colón and current Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi are members— and is represented in the States most prominently by the Puerto Rico Statehood Council.

The current colonial status is supported in the islands by the Popular Democratic Party (PPD in Spanish). While the voters of Puerto Rico have regularly expressed a desire to begin a process of decolonization —either through statehood or through greater sovereignty, including full independence— the PPD has lobbied for the inclusion of the current status on any future plebiscite.

At a press conference on Wednesday in San Juan, Domingo García, national president of the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC), called for the inclusion of the current status in the plebiscite scheduled for November 2023.

“Let’s have all options on the table,” he said. “LULAC has taken the position in favor of statehood, but the final decision (should be made) by the Puerto Rican people.”

After last week’s markup session, Chairman Grijalva said he opposed attempts to include the island’s current status on the future plebiscite. “The key intention of this bill would be lost,” he told José Delgado at El Nuevo Día.

LULAC is currently hosting its annual conference in the Puerto Rican capital, where there is a concerted effort by pro-statehood Puerto Ricans to take control of the 93-year-old civil rights group founded by Mexican Americans in Corpus Christi, Texas.

“In advance of the conference, the number of councils in Puerto Rico —what the group calls its chapters— has exploded from 54 last year to at least 343,” NBC News’ Suzanne Gamboa reported on Wednesday. “Dallas attorney Domingo García, who is Mexican American, could very well be defeated by his challenger, Juan Carlos Lizardi, a New York resident born in Puerto Rico and son of longtime board member and Puerto Rico statehood activist Elsie Valdes.”

While in June García restated LULAC’s position on Puerto Rico’s status as being one of neutral respect for the self-determination of the Puerto Rican people, LULAC CEO Sindy Benavides told The Hill in March that the group was supporting the push for statehood, saying “the moment is now.”

On Wednesday, LULAC issued a press release formally declaring its endorsement of the statehood movement.

“Statehood would provide the necessary stability for long-term planning, recovery, and sustainable development,” Benavides said in the statement, pointing to a resolution passed by LULAC in 2018 to back the statehood option.

Wednesday’s announcement marks the culmination of a decades-long shift in the group that has seen it adopt an increasingly partisan stance on Puerto Rico’s status question. In 2003, a report alleged that LULAC was being systematically infiltrated by pro-statehood members of the PNP.

“During the administration of [PNP] Gov. Pedro Rossello, the island’s then-education secretary allegedly extorted donations from contractors to pay for LULAC memberships and travel to league meetings for island Education Department workers,” Maria T. Padilla wrote for the Orlando Sentinel.

“Why the sudden Puerto Rico interest in LULAC? Simple. The [PNP] sees LULAC as a vehicle for promoting island statehood,” Padilla added.

The news this week from LULAC’s annual conference in San Juan appears to confirm such suspicion.

Even if the Puerto Rico Status Act passes the House, it is unlikely to pass the Senate, according to numerous senators from both parties asked by Latino Rebels.

Messaging bills that pass only one chamber are common enough in Congress. What’s unclear about the Puerto Rico Status Act is what message its negotiators are trying to send.

The bill’s historic consensus has become an increasingly uncertain proposition in the House as Democratic leadership —especially Hoyer, who has championed the bill— determines which next steps for the bill, if any, make sense in the current Congress.

Julio Ricardo Varela and Hector Luis Alamo contributed to this reporting.


Pablo Manríquez is the Capitol Hill correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports