Again sidelined: the Supreme Court on Puerto Rico

Anthony Lopez, Investigative News Editor

In a near-unanimous vote last week, the Supreme Court decided to exclude citizens of Puerto Rico from receiving certain federal disability benefits typically available to those presiding within official states. The Court argued partly that, as a result of Puerto Ricans receiving certain exemptions from federal taxes, it was only logical that they might also be omitted from consideration for certain federal benefits. Residents of the territory are eligible for Social Security and Medicare, but not necessarily for the funds provided by Supplemental Security Income program.  

This inconsistent series of stipulations is inherent to Puerto Rico’s purgatorial status as an unincorporated territory rather than a state – a condition that leaves the citizens of the island far more beholden to the unpredictable determination of a few justices than New York or Pennsylvania. Over three million live in Puerto Rico, a population outranking twenty incorporated states. Yet these individuals remain deprived of any official representation in the federal government, affording them significantly less autonomy than a state despite legislatures’ ability to pass bills that will directly affect the island’s inhabitants. Congress voted to establish a civil government in the region, and in the following years granted Puerto Ricans citizenship. But it is a bitter irony that it is this legislative body who can determine Puerto Rico’s statehood despite the territory lacking the official voices to argue for the island’s legitimacy. 

It is difficult at first to comprehend why a territory, one that has been a part of the United States since 1898, is continually denied the same opportunities as that of other regions in the country. Puerto Ricans can vote in presidential elections certainly, yet because the island has no electoral votes it is a privilege rather than a right, granted to them so long as they take up residence in a U.S. state or the District of Columbia. 

The benefits of Puerto Rico becoming a state are clear, while the Supreme Court’s decision makes some of the drawbacks painfully apparent. The many benefits and securities that most Americans are afforded and arguably taken for granted would also be extended to Puerto Rican citizens. The ability to vote in elections on the island, as well as the opportunity to have representatives in government, is critical for a territory tied so closely to the United States. 

But the need for statehood extends beyond security benefits. When Hurricane Maria struck the island in 2018, the afflicted citizens received a limp response from federal officials and agencies, blatantly overshadowed by the comparably lesser destruction wrought in Houston around the same period. The response for Texas was faster and significantly more expansive, while more relief applications were approved by FEMA for Houston in comparison to Puerto Rico.

Crises are among the most effective ways in determining flaws in systems and infrastructure, and the damage inflicted by Hurricane Maria demonstrated one of the most critical reasons Puerto Rico deserves a higher status than simply an American territory: if it wishes to receive the same amount of support, it needs to become a state. 

Within Puerto Rico, opinion varies on the path forward for the relegated island. In a 2020 non-binding referendum, over half of voters expressed support for immediate statehood. But this was not the first referendum cast in the territory, but rather the first with a simple “yes or no” on the ballot. Past referendums have also considered the possibilities of total independence as well, one that could potentially take them on a path of severing its ties with the United States and a few of the benefits provided, yet also garnering true independence by becoming a sovereign nation. In the aftermath of that vote, several bills were introduced in Congress, including one that would provide a pathway to statehood and another that would assist in forming a more binding referendum. Yet while those were promising actions, none went farther beyond collecting a few dozen cosponsors. 

Within the states, Puerto Rico’s statehood too has majority support, though there is a predictably partisan divide. According to YouGov and DataforProgress polling, 76 percent of Democrats support the motion, while only 30 percent of Republicans feel similarly.  

Puerto Rico, despite a majority of citizens both on the island and within states being favorable to statehood, and in spite of the efforts made within Congress, currently has no feasible path towards such a radical change. The move does not bear overwhelming support in government, but the arguments against it are feeble, at best. Some have expressed hesitancy given a lack of strong majority support in the territory itself. In 2019 Mitch McConnell opined that to provide the territory statehood would be to invite socialism to infect the country. He claimed that it would only grant Puerto Rico the space to elect two assuredly Democratic senators, feeding into what he saw as the opposing party’s socialist agenda. Another Republican senator warned that, should territories like Puerto Rico attain statehood, their party would never win back the Senate.

These are nonsensical responses, not merely because there are no socialist Democratic senators, and not simply because there is no guarantee that Puerto Rico would even elect Democratic representatives. In suggesting that Puerto Rico should be denied statehood by virtue of how it may vote, McConnell and many Republicans are implicitly arguing that rights should be refused to those that they view lean on the wrong side politically. It is a poor excuse used to continue restricting the abilities of Puerto Ricans, and to use such arguments is to take among the most anti-democratic of stances. 

But with only a little over half of voting Puerto Ricans in favor of statehood, perhaps it would be short-sighted to conclude that this opposing sentiment is found predominantly among Republicans. The possibility of independence is an optimal alternative for some on the island, while still others are willing to embrace the unstable middle-ground afforded by the current relationship between the territory and the United States. Puerto Rico has authority over their own internal governance, admittedly, a certain level of autonomy viewed as desirable to many of the territory’s denizens. But it is a far cry from what the island’s citizens deserve while attached to America.

Puerto Rico has spent generations gripped by colonization and a tenuous dynamic with a sovereign nation that can determine sweeping changes and restrictions without the meaningful input of the citizens potentially most affected. It is not enough to accept present conditions because they have been long lasting or because apathy has set in; the island’s lack of statehood is an untenable situation that demands change. It would be foolish to wait for another natural disaster in order to take action, and irresponsible to stand by until another afflicting decision is made by the Supreme Court. Majority support has long since been attained; the time is now to honor it. 

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