Puerto Rico is making its biggest push for statehood in years, filing legislation in Congress that would make the island the 51st state by 2021.
Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, a Republican, filed a bill on Wednesday that would pave the way for the island to become a state no later than January 2021. The measure is co-sponsored by 21 Republicans and 14 Democrats and fulfills the promises of González-Colón and Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who campaigned on a statehood platform and said statehood is a civil rights issue for Puerto Ricans.
"No longer do we want ambiguity. No longer do we want this kicked down the road," Rosselló said at a Capitol Hill news conference. "In Congress you're either with us or you're against the people of Puerto Rico."
The aggressive push for statehood comes less than a year after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria, and residents who feel ignored by the federal government are still in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, wondering if the lights will turn on. The island is also mired in a financial crisis after declaring a form of bankruptcy last year, and its finances are under the oversight of a board based in the mainland United States.
Elected officials said making the island a state would help it receive the help it needs and ensure that its residents are no longer treated as second-class citizens by the federal government.
Rep. José Serrano (D., N.Y.), who was born in Puerto Rico, said if it wasn't clear that "Puerto Rico is in a colonial relationship with the United States, look at what happened after Hurricane Maria … they are an afterthought."
Nearly a year after the storm, millions in federal dollars for reconstruction have yet to be allocated, and many islanders still feel disrespected by President Trump, who during a visit lobbed paper towels into a crowd of survivors like he was shooting a basketball.
Puerto Ricans, Serrano said, deserve "to have the same rights and privileges I have living in New York."
But the push for statehood has not been wholeheartedly received on the island, where it is seen as a stable option that blends both sovereignty and federal support. In a referendum last year, 97 percent of those who voted chose statehood, but just 23 percent of registered voters cast ballots. The vote was seen as flawed and opposition parties boycotted.
It was the fifth referendum held on statehood since Puerto Rico was acquired in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and designated a commonwealth. The island's first democratically elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marín, cut a deal with Congress in the 1950s that allowed the island to manage its own finances.
The last three statehood votes have been controversial because the parties in power have been accused of manipulating the language on the ballot. Federico de Jesús, principal of FDJ Solutions, a consulting firm and the former deputy director of the Puerto Rico governor's office in Washington, said last year's referendum was historic because so few people participated, and believes the bill is more of something that politicians can say they did rather than being from the will of residents.
"Frankly, right now I think folks in Puerto Rico aren't focused on politics, they're focused on whether there's going to be a power outage, whether the traffic lights are working," he said. "Really what we need to do is rebuild the island and while the control board is managing the island's finances, I don't think the status issue will be resolved until the debt issues are."
The bill calls for the creation of a task force that would recommend which laws to repeal that put Puerto Rico on a different footing than the states, to find temporary economic measures to help Puerto Rico transition to statehood, propose rules and dates for federal elections, and study how statehood would affect the U.S. House.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but cannot vote for president. González-Colón is a nonvoting member of Congress. Rosselló appointed members to a statehood commission or "shadow delegation" – three Republicans, three Democrats and one independent – to roam the halls of Congress, asking to be seated and for Puerto Rico to be admitted to the union.
There has been little indication that the bill would pass. Puerto Rico had 3.3 million residents before the hurricane, making its population slightly larger than that of Connecticut, and could give the island seven representatives.
Supporters of the bill said that would finally put the island on equal footing.