WASHINGTON — Former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno drew upon his time in Congress Tuesday to argue that the island should be granted full representation through statehood.
“There were laws that were being approved that would apply fully to the American citizens of Puerto Rico, yet I could not vote up or down on these bills,” said Fortuno, who served as the Puerto Rico non-voting delegate in Congress for four years.“Our founding fathers never intended for 4 million American citizens to live under these conditions.”
Fortuno’s remarks came during a news conference hosted by the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a conservative advocacy group. Fortuno’s trip to the nation’s capital follows a November non-binding referendum when 54 percent of Puerto Ricans chose to end their current status as a self-governing U.S. commonwealth. In a follow-up ballot question, just over three-fifths of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood over full independence or semi-autonomy.
However, more than 470,000 voters did not answer the second question, meaning that only 45 percent of the electorate directly supported statehood. Congress would have to approve any statehood petition by a majority vote with President Barack Obama signing the bill. In December, the White House stopped short of fully endorsing the push to make Puerto Rico a 51st state.
As issues like immigration reform and gun control are already topping the legislative agenda this year, the effort may face an uphill climb. What’s more, statehood could result in up to $7.7 billion per year in additional federal spending on the island, according to a 2010 report released by Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee.
Fortuno, a Republican, did not comment in detail about the chances for success this year, but said he hopes a bipartisan bill will be introduced to move away from the island’s status as a self-governing U.S. commonwealth.
Puerto Rico’s bid for statehood takes on increased relevance after the immigration proposal unveiled Monday, which includes a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, said panelist Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
“It’s fitting and important that we remember the 3.7 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico who, for almost a hundred years, have been denied their full constitutional rights,” Aguilar said. Puerto Ricans can vote in their own presidential primary, but not in the General Election for president.
Throughout the news conference, several panelists likened Puerto Rico’s statehood aspirations to achieving racial equality in the United States. They compared the injustices African Americans suffered from the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which upheld segregation, to Puerto Ricans being unable to achieve full representation through the island’s current status.
“America is not like Europe,” said Niger Innis, spokesman for Congress of Racial Equality, a U.S. civil rights organization. “America is a republic, not an empire. We have citizens not subjects.”
Fortuno, in answer to a question, said the push for Puerto Rico’s statehood is different from granting the District of Columbia statehood. While making Puerto Rico a state requires a simple majority vote in the House and Senate, statehood for the District of Columbia would require a constitutional amendment.
Pedro Pierluisi, a Democrat who serves as the non-voting delegate for Puerto Rico, has said he hopes to move forward on statehood.
“For the first time ever, more people in Puerto Rico want to be a state — the status I support — than to continue as a territory,” Pierliusi wrote in an op-ed published December in Roll Call.
But there may be some signs that Puerto Ricans are not as supportive of statehood as the November referendum suggests. In a narrow vote, they ousted Fortuno as governor. He was one of the strongest advocates for statehood.
Puerto Ricans also benefit economically from the island’s current status, paying no tax on income earned on the island. If Puerto Rico became a state, they would owe taxes on that money.
Puerto Rico has been a Commonwealth of the United States since 1952. Congress last passed a statehood bill in 1959, when Hawaii became a state.