The Tampa Tribune
"The issue of Puerto Rico statehood raises a variety of vexing questions"
(03/06/98, Copyright 1998)
The arguments for keeping Puerto Rico in second-class status are, on the surface, quite persuasive. Granting it statehood would cost too much, create language problems and compel the Spanish-speaking possession to Americanize against its will.
Yet the present situation is increasingly problematic, and barriers to statehood are visibly diminishing. That is why a bill allowing self-determination won a close vote in the House, despite organized opposition.
As the debate shifts to the Senate, Americans irritated that this Caribbean island may become the 51st state should ask themselves why it hasn't bothered them that the United States has for 100 years owned this same territory whose inhabitants are U.S. citizens.
Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898, following the Spanish-American War, so this is a centennial year and a target date for change.
The argument against the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act will be built on these points:
"Statehood is for the poor."
That slogan, first used in Puerto Rico by statehood advocates, has here been turned against the campaign to give Puerto Rico a star on the flag.
Puerto Ricans now pay no federal income tax. The General Accounting Office has estimated that if it became a state, 53 percent of the income tax returns would qualify for tax credits. Should nothing else change, statehood could cost up to $4 billion a year in increased federal aid.
The 1992 per-capita income there was only $6,428; residents of the poorest state in the Union, Mississippi, earned that year an average of $14,083. The island suffers high unemployment and high local taxes, and about half of all Puerto Ricans receive food stamps.
Many ambitious and educated residents move to the mainland, where they find salaries that match their capabilities. This brain drain leaves behind the elderly and the unskilled, who take low-wage jobs at industries given special U.S. tax breaks.
As long as Puerto Rico is kept at the fringe of the U.S. economy, it cannot be expected to thrive.
Puerto Ricans are foreigners.
In fact, all Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. They are free to move to any state, and when they do, they vote and pay taxes just as their mainland-born neighbors do. Language has been no barrier. More than 2 million people born in Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican descent now live in the United States, about 250,000 of them in Florida.
And they help fight in our wars. Miriam J. Ramirez de Ferrer, a physician who founded the pro-statehood group Puerto Ricans in Civic Action, says that she knew the first U.S. soldier killed in Somalia. He was a Puerto Rican, and she was the doctor who helped with his birth.
As a state, Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico would perennially push for independence, like Canada's French-speaking Quebec.
Only a very small fraction of Puerto Ricans favor independence.
Federal business there is handled in English, but only about 25 percent of Puerto Ricans can read and write fluently in English. With statehood would come the probability that English-speaking citizens visiting there could be charged with a crime and tried in a state court, all in a foreign language.
The transition period would bring intensified efforts to make all Puerto Rican students bilingual. Improved literacy in English is essential for economic progress there.
The New York Post questioned last year "whether it is in America's interest to attempt to digest, as a state, a territory whose inhabitants are predominantly Spanish-speaking, far poorer on average than mainland Americans, and more heavily dependent on federal welfare and transfer payments than the residents of the poorest current states."
The object is not to digest the island but to share with it the full duties and responsibilities of citizenship.
The bill would have Puerto Ricans vote on whether they wished to remain a U.S. territory, become independent or become a state. If a majority chose statehood, the president would submit to Congress a transition plan, which also would be offered to Puerto Rico's voters for approval.
Nothing would be automatic, and various conditions could be imposed. After a successful transition period, which could take 10 years, Congress would decide whether to admit Puerto Rico to the Union.
To do so would be to finally give this stepchild a last name: Puerto Rico, U.S.A.