The year that the next president of the United States takes office will mark the centennial of Puerto Ricans being a part of our nation as citizens. But after 24 presidential elections and 17 presidents, the American citizens of Puerto Rico are still waiting to cast their first ballot in a presidential election or have proportional and voting representation in Congress.
Because Puerto Rico is a possession of the United States, the Constitution’s Territory Clause gives Congress ample power to legislate over the island. Ending the anomaly of depriving a community of American citizens of the most basic political rights will require not only action from Congress, but also principled leadership from the president.
The major advances that Puerto Rico has made in its slow progress toward full self-government within the union did not result from sudden initiatives in Congress but reflected the policies of each administration. In 1898, President McKinley declared war against Spain and ordered the occupation of Puerto Rico. Woodrow Wilson asserted in 1916 that favorable Senate action on the bill that would confer American citizenship to the residents of the Island was a matter of “capital importance.”
He followed the policy of Theodore Roosevelt who recommended that Puerto Ricans be made U.S. citizens. Harry Truman brought about legislation to make the governorship of Puerto Rico an elected office beginning in 1948. He also pursued that the people of Puerto Rico adopt a constitution which, according to President Truman, “will virtually put them on a statehood basis, except they won't have two Senators and Representatives in the Congress." It became effective in 1952.
Other presidents have taken a keen interest in the civil rights of the American citizens of Puerto Rico.
Gerald Ford proposed “that the people of Puerto Rico and the Congress of the United States begin now to take those steps which will result in statehood for Puerto Rico.” Ronald Reagan thought that the president should “take the lead in persuading the people of Puerto Rico” and all Americans “that statehood would be good for all of us.”
Moreover, during his first State of the Union address, George H.W. Bush, while expressing that he favored statehood, asked “Congress to take the necessary steps to let the people decide in a referendum.”
However, for too many years people at the Hill and the White House have stated that it is up to the people of Puerto Rico to seek a change in the island’s political status, as if our Constitution sanctioned the consent of citizens to subordination and inequality.
With the plebiscite held on November 6, 2012, the American citizens of Puerto Rico withdrew any plausible consent to Congress ruling over the island by virtue of the Constitution’s Territory Clause.
The ballot had two questions. Voters were first asked if they wanted Puerto Rico to remain a territory. Of 1.8 million voters, 54 percent said they do not want the current status to continue. Voters were then asked to express their preference among the non-territorial status options.
Of the 1.4 million people who chose an option, 61 percent voted for statehood. Moreover, the total number of votes for statehood on the second question exceeded the number of votes for the current status on the first question. Clearly, more people want Puerto Rico to be a state than to continue as a territory.
The choice of the people of Puerto Rico deserves action. But ultimately, we as a nation must decide if our Constitution recognizes the same rights to all Americans. The answer was “yes” when the Civil War was fought to end slavery, when women were recognized the right to vote, and when the Supreme Court decided that separate was not equal. And the answer should be clearly and unequivocally the same for the American citizens of Puerto Rico.
Our forefathers never envisioned that the United States would keep territories indefinitely, as imperial powers sought to keep colonies, thereby denying fundamental rights to some citizens.
Given the intent of the framers of the Constitution, the residents of Puerto Rico must either preserve their American citizenship with all its rights and obligations under statehood or renounce it to govern themselves separately as a nation. There is no provision in the Constitution for second-class American citizenship.
Whether the centennial of the American citizenship of the residents of Puerto Rico is cause for national celebration or embarrassment may depend on the stance taken by the President. Puerto Rico’s territorial status is morally wrong and constitutionally unacceptable. Bringing it to and end will require principled leadership and the ability to work with Congress.
The residents of Puerto Rico have already endured 95 years of unequal citizenship. But it is never too late to do what is right.