THIS ARTICLE BY SENATOR CHARLES A. RODRIGUEZ, PRESIDENT OF THE PUERTO RICO SENATE, APPEARED IN THE ORLANDO SENTINELS SPECIAL INSIGHT SECTION
STATEHOOD IS A RIGHT
BECOMING A STATE WOULD ALLOW PUERTO RICANS TO ENJOY ALL THE BENEFITS THAT OTHER AMERICANS TAKE FOR GRANTED.
Charles A. Rodriguez,
Special To The Sentinel
We, the 3.8 million US citizens who live in Puerto Rico, have earned statehood by our unswerving dedication to the US Constitution and our valor in its defense.
Statehood is a status that guarantees all our US constitutional rights and offers the unlimited economic opportunities that equal membership in the federal system promises American citizens.
To many, this quest appears quixotic. Puerto Ricans reside on a beautiful island, reaping most of the benefits all other Americans enjoy but without the burden of federal taxation. But this picture of paradise is incomplete without assessing the constitutional and economic toll that territorial status has exacted on Puerto Rico's residents in the nearly 100 years since the island was ceded to the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Under the Treaty of Paris, Congress was given the power to determine which parts of the Constitution apply to Puerto Rico's residents.
Even statutory US citizenship granted in 1917 has not served as a bar to legal discrimination. Residents of Puerto Rico are not entitled to the same constitutional rights and protections available on the mainland.
How ironic that since World War I more than 200,000 of our youth, four Congressional Medal of Honor recipients included, have defended the US Constitution abroad although it does not treat them equally at home, where they can't even vote for the commander-in-chief who sends them into battle.
Without congressional representation and the presidential vote, we are governed by elected officials beholden to distant constituencies far removed from the discipline of the ballot box. Would the residents of Central Florida be comfortable relying on Montana's representatives and senators to understand their needs and pass laws that governed their lives?
I think not. But it is the situation Puerto Ricans have faced for almost a century. Puerto Rico stands as an anomaly to the free world, the most populous colony of disenfranchised citizens administered by the foremost champion of democracy.
The effects of political disenfranchisement has affected our livelihoods, too. Political disengagement has engendered economic estrangement.
By any standard applicable to Americans elsewhere, our economic miracle is little more than a hollow boast. Sure, we are better off today than we were 100 years ago, but Puerto Rico deserves to be measured not by its economic supremacy over Haiti, but by its failure to catch up to the standard of living enjoyed on the mainland.
Puerto Rico's economic stagnation is the direct result of a discredited commonwealth federal tax-incentive program intended to create jobs, but which instead has generated $4 billion in corporate profits annually. The result: an unemployment rate double the mainland's and per-capita income that is one-third the national average and less than half that of Mississippi, the state with the lowest per-capita income.
It is little wonder that more than 2.5 million Puerto Ricans have migrated to the states. For proof, look at the large influx into the Orlando area of Puerto Rico's skilled workers and professionals seeking better opportunities and a superior quality of life.
Statehood for Puerto Rico will make a difference. It will mean that we can achieve the American dream on our island rather than having to pursue it in Florida, Illinois, Texas or New York. Our citizenship will be equal to that of all other Americans. With seven members of the US House of Representatives, two US senators and nine electoral votes, we will have a direct say in policies and legislation that affect us.
Puerto Rico's residents will be entitled to participate in federally funded programs to the same extent as mainland Americans. For example, instead of $130 million in Medicaid, Puerto Rico will get $1.1 billion, and moving from Kissimmee to San Juan will no longer mean forfeiting SSI disability payments.
Sure, we'll have to pay federal income taxes, but that's a small price compared with the lives lost by more than 2,000 of our youth in military combat. Judging by the millions who have "voted with their feet" for statehood by moving to the mainland, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
Finally, Puerto Rico's economy will emulate the post-territorial growth that states such as Arizona and Oklahoma experienced when they entered the union.
Their economies uniformly converged or caught up with the older and richer states as political stability, legal certainty, investor confidence and national synergy attracted domestic and foreign capital.
I am convinced we will vote for statehood, but some Americans will oppose that decision unless Puerto Rico embraces English as its official language. Others will question the cost of our admission to the union. Neither is a legitimate barrier to our statehood goal.
English never has been a condition for statehood in the United States. Puerto Rico should not, and constitutionally cannot, be the exception.
Since the Constitution makes no mention of an official national language, that power resides in the states under the Tenth Amendment, which expressly says that those matters not delegated to the federal government are the province of the states. Florida and 22 other states have chosen English while Hawaii has two official languages, English and Hawaiian. Puerto Rico, too, has had two official languages since 1898, English and Spanish. Gov. Pedro Rossello, reversing prior commonwealth governments' anti-statehood campaigns, is expanding English instruction in public schools in recognition of its importance in providing increased economic opportunities for all Puerto Ricans.
Similarly, statehood has never been a business decision. If it were, some territories - New Mexico for example - which received federal assistance in their statehood transition, wouldn't have been admitted while some states today would no longer qualify. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico is further advanced economically than were many other territories on the threshold of admission.
I believe Puerto Ricans only wish to enjoy all the rights and benefits other Americans take for granted. We have not and will not shrink from the burdens that equal participation under the US Constitution entails.
Puerto Ricans have implemented the ideals of American democracy. Our dream is to begin the second 100 years of our relationship with the United States as a full partner in the American enterprise. Only statehood offers us that opportunity.