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Lawmakers reach consensus on Puerto Rico status bill, call for plebiscite

The newly unveiled draft of the Puerto Rico Status Act would let voters choose statehood, independence or sovereignty in free association — effectively excluding the current territorial status as an option.
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Members of Congress sponsoring competing bills on how to resolve Puerto Rico’s territorial status and its relationship to the U.S. have come together to introduce new legislation combining both.

House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., has helped lead a monthslong effort to get lawmakers on opposing sides of the Puerto Rico territorial status debate to make some compromises under the newly unveiled draft of the Puerto Rico Status Act.

"Puerto Rican people do not want to be a colony, and the United States of America does not want to be a colonialist power. This legislation seeks to address that issue," Hoyer said during a news conference Thursday.

The proposed legislation combines elements of the pro-statehood bill introduced by Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., and Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of Congress and a Republican, alongside the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act from Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez, both New York Democrats.

"This makes today a truly historic day for Puerto Rico's future," Gonzalez, who advocates for statehood, said. "It's not perfect. It's not all that Nydia wanted, it's not all I wanted... but at least, we need to recognize there is a will from the members that are here to get things done."

The legislation is centered on the premise that the "people of Puerto Rico must decide their future for themselves" in a binding and federally sponsored plebiscite with Congress serving as an initiator and facilitator of that process, Hoyer said.

Some of the key compromise elements reached by lawmakers are defining nonterritorial statuses as statehood, independence and sovereignty in free association, and laying out how each would be potentially implemented.

"This is the first time Congress recognizes free association as a status option, where the American citizenship of Puerto Ricans will be respected," Velázquez said. Congress granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917.

Hoyer said the draft bill would also help create a nonpartisan federally funded education campaign leading up to a future status vote. Moreover, Congress would be obligated to implement "the clear majority of the will of the people of Puerto Rico."

Ocasio-Cortez described the consensus as "un milagro," Spanish for a miracle.

"This is not a political agreement on what the outcome should be, but it is a political agreement on the process," she said.

Why current status is not an option

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who leads the House committee that oversees the affairs of U.S. territories, pointed out that Puerto Rico's current territorial status is not listed as an option: "That is a point of consensus" among sponsors of any legislation, he said.

As a U.S. territory, Congress and the federal government are allowed to treat Puerto Rico as foreign for domestic purposes and a state for international purposes. For example, Puerto Ricans can be drafted and serve in the U.S. military, but those who live on the island cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections or have members of Congress with voting power. The difference is also particularly evident when it comes to funding public programs in Puerto Rico such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income benefits.

This unequal treatment has been upheld by a series of Supreme Court rulings from the early 1900s known as the Insular Cases, which were written by most of the justices who legalized racial segregation under Plessy v. Ferguson after Puerto Rico came under U.S. control following the 1898 Spanish-American War.

"This colonized relationship with Puerto Rico needs to end," Grijalva, who sponsored a bipartisan resolution in 2019 to reject the use of the Insular Cases as legal precedent, said.

The House committee Grijalva leads has opened a virtual portal to gather feedback from people in Puerto Rico and other interested stakeholders before introducing an official bill to Congress. In-person public comment sessions are also expected to take place on the island.

"I'm looking forward to traveling back to Puerto Rico to hear from the people," Soto said.

Velázquez said she and her colleagues may hold opposing views on how to "achieve Puerto Rico's decolonization" but they reached common ground after several hours long meetings.

The draft legislation says that "a plebiscite to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status shall be held on November 5, 2023."

"The status question is bigger than all of us here today and bigger than any political motivations. The status question has affected Puerto Ricans for centuries," Velázquez said.

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