H.R. 1522 – Puerto Rican Statehood
On March 02nd, 2021, Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, Jenniffer González-Colón (New Progressive Party), on behalf of her constituents, spearheaded the effort of proposing the bipartisan House Resolution 1522 – Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, alongside Congressman Darren Soto (D-FL) and 68 other congress-members. This bill follows the November 2020 statehood referendum that found 52.52% of the public voted in favor of statehood.
The Historical Struggle for Statehood
A bill with an objective like that of H.R. 1522 is not uncommon. Introduced on October 29th, 2019, by Congressman Jose E. Serrano (D-NY) and Congresswoman González-Colón, H.R. 4901 aimed to grant Puerto Rico statehood, but the bill died in committee. There is a historical favor for statehood with previous attempts of launching an additional five referendums. These efforts date as far back as 1900, soon after Puerto Rico’s accession to the Union with the Foraker Act, which “established a civilian government—but stopped short of conferring full rights on Puerto Ricans”.
Concerns in the past on the status of Puerto Rico largely revolved around the unknown responsibilities associated with the territory, and the opening of a whole host of new questions on territorial statuses. Today, the question is less about the status of Puerto Rico, but the economic burden assumed by the U.S. government, which is the largest factor determining statehood. Puerto Rico’s current debt represents nearly “70% of the territory’s gross domestic product (GDP)”.
Unfortunately for Puerto Ricans, concerns on the encumbering debt are not the only burden on the process to statehood, but also the political ramifications that will result from the entrance of Puerto Rico into the Union. To both Republicans and Democrats, the political advantage is key, especially since Puerto Rico is seen as a gain of two new U.S. senators and likely four new U.S. House Representatives.
Both parties are eyeing these seats, although the Democrats are concerned given that “the conservative values and Latin traditions are more akin to the values of a Republican Party”, and that both Puerto Rico’s last governor and current, sole representative are affiliated with Republicans.
The Democrat’s Opposition
Democratic lawmakers demonstrated their concern as H.R. 1522 makes its way through committee, such that Congresswoman Nydia M. Velazquez (D-NY), with strong support by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) (AOC), proposed an alternative bill to H.R. 1522 titled H.R. 2070 – Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021.
When discussing why she cosponsored H.R. 2070, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez found “debate over Puerto Rico’s territorial status has been “one-sided” and marred with political interests that have historically deprived Puerto Ricans of meaningfully exploring independence and free association as options” Congresswoman González-Colón responded to H.R. 2070 by saying that it “shamelessly ignores the will of voters in Puerto Rico” by instead drawing the process out for statehood and permitting “the losing minority deny the clear choice of the majority in a free and fair vote”.
AOC’s bill would mark a reversal from the need to avoid “political interests” given that the congresswoman co-sponsored H.R. 51 – Washington, D.C. Admission Act. This tactic would not only see the accession of the District of Columbia into the Union as a state but more likely guarantee the gain of two new Democrat senators and one Democrat representative, given the district’s incumbent Democrat representative in the House and the district’s strong Democratic party affiliation of 56%.
If H.R. 1522 passes both chambers of Congress and President Biden signs it into law it needs to establish a framework for bringing Puerto Rico into the Union. Necessary next steps include a process for a new state government, U.S law-making strategies within coordination with the governor, and to re-assess the Puerto Rican people’s desire to become a state. This determines whether or not statehood can move forward. The President needs to issue a proclamation making them a state no later than 12 months following the certification of the Puerto Rican peoples’ votes on accession to the Union.
As of June 16th, 2021, H.R. 1522 has entered into a hearing in the Committee on Natural Resources. In regard to H.R. 1522’s Senate companion bill S. 780, sponsored by Martin Heinrich (D-NM), as of March 16th, 2021 has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. If the bill is successful in being passed and ratified, much like H.R. 51 – Washington, D.C. Admission Act was in moving past the House and into the Senate, the union would welcome in two new U.S. Senators for Puerto Rico, and possibly up to four new voting members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In a speech on Congresswoman González-Colón’s congressional page on March 2nd, 2021, Puerto Rico’s sole representative who caucuses with the Republicans, said “this is an issue that all Puerto Ricans agree is the future of the island… this is an issue of democracy, this is an issue of self-determination, this is an issue of the right of American citizens living in Puerto Rico that needs to be heard”.