Along the list of legislative priorities in Congress this year that the Latino community will face is growing support for a change regarding Puerto Rico’s status.
The claim being that this is a Latino issue that voters will take into account in 2014.
As a reminder, multi-partisan advocates that want a change in the status of the island — including two Hispanic lawmakers — gathered Monday outside the U.S. Capitol to call into the question what the next steps should be in light of last November’s election results.
54 percent of people want change in Puerto Rico’s status
A referendum on status was held in Puerto Rico on Nov. 6. The results indicated that 54 percent of voters prefer changing the island’s status, while 61 percent support statehood.
“We’re second-class citizens and people just don’t want it anymore,” said Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, who supports statehood. “Now that creates the need for Congress and the White House to step in and offer one or more options to the people of Puerto Rico in terms of their future.”
Congress would need to vote and approve a measure to change Puerto Rico’s status from a territory to a state. The Obama administration has said it is time for Congress to act and they will work with legislators “so that the people of Puerto Rico can determine their own future.”
Pierluisi told VOXXI that he would be introducing his own legislation, but will do so in the coming months when there are enough co-sponsors to support it. He added that in his conversations there seems to be a rising interest from both sides of the aisle on statehood.
He signaled several persons of interest with possibly the biggest ally they have as Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, and also mentioned that Minority leader of the House Republicans Rep. Eric Cantor, had expressed interest.
“We should act with a sense of urgency. The longer you wait the less chance you have of actually getting a bill approved,” he said.
What if Congress does not accept the referendum?
Still, what could become contentious is if Congress does not accept the referendum considering there were questionable votes. An estimated dozens of individuals who came from Puerto Rico wanted to dispel that notion.
Criticism centered on the problem that more than 466,000 persons who voted on the first question did not do so for the second question, which specifically questions what status voters prefer.
The first question asked whether Puerto Ricans wanted to keep the current status. Yet, advocates argue that the majority would agree to any sort of mechanism that permits them to stray away from being a “colony” status.
Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), who was born in Puerto Rico and is showing his support for the plebiscite, said the facts are there for Congress to pursue statehood. He indicated that it became clear that in a jurisdiction where 78 percent of the people voted, a clear majority said that they wish to change the present colonial status that they have with the United States.
An estimated 78 percent of the registered voters cast a ballot to change the status option and it won by a margin of 140,000 votes.
“I find myself in a unique situation,” he said, while indicating that he had not supported any strong positions toward the island before. “I was born in the territory, I was born in the colony and now I am a member of the Congress that owes the colony without full citizenship or full rights.”
Said Serrano, “The only thing that I do not accept is more colonialism. I don’t want my birthplace to be a colony and I don’t want the Congress I serve in to have any colonies in the Caribbean.”
Dr. Ricardo Rossello Nevares, spokesperson for the multi-partisan group Boricua ¡Ahora Es!, which is leading this initiative, cited that with over 100 Puerto Ricans who traveled at their own expense from the island as citizen lobbyists to knock on the doors of each congressperson, the pressure is mounting for swift action on a change in status.
There also seems to be a growing interest from national Latino organizations including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Other organizations they’re hoping to reach out to include the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
What would happen if Puerto Rico becomes a state?
If the case is that Puerto Rico becomes a state through its approval in Congress, Puerto Ricans would be eligible to vote in all U.S. elections. They would also have to pay federal taxes, which they are currently excused from.
That also factors into the Republican outreach in terms of the Hispanic vote. Supporters indicated that if they decide not to back Puerto Rican statehood there will be repercussion in terms of the Latino vote.
“The greatest obstacle will be if the Republicans in the House do not understand that this is part of their Latino problem,” Serrano said. “There is a Latino problem that they have and they can not ignore after 114 years 3.7 million American citizens who said they wanted change in their political status.”
Puerto Ricans make up one of the fastest growing groups in the United States population with more than 4.6 million, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. This same population was credited for the shifting dynamic in the swing state of Florida.
Pierluisi added that when it comes to Puerto Ricans and their concerns toward the United States, there’s a gap in terms of its relationship.
“The U.S. doesn’t have the consent of the governed in Puerto Rico,” said Pierluisi. “They want change.”