Puerto Rican activists march. Photo: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images.
The subject of undoing Puerto Rico's political contract with the U.S. is mired in controversy and disagreement. Photo: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images.

Puerto Rican independence is almost as implausible as getting a bill through the Senate

Puerto Rico grapples with legislation that satisfies self-determination while convincing Senate Republicans that it's the right choice.


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The Democrat-led U.S. House of Representatives is racing against time ahead of closing two productive years for the Biden administration to usher in a series of last-minute bills before the holiday break, which also marks the start of a new Republican majority. 

After successfully enshrining marriage protections for Gay and interracial marriages, the House will now deliberate the viability of two bills — the first concerning immigration guidelines, employment-based visas, and new country caps — and the second to address Puerto Rico’s political fate. 

The Puerto Rico Status Act, at its core, hopes to resolve a century-long contractual relationship imposed on Puerto Rico after the U.S. triumph in the Spanish-American War in the late 19th century, which has shaped every aspect of its upbringing among its Latin American neighbors. 

It’s governed by a series of political tools the U.S. government created to keep tabs on its newly acquired territory — like the Jones Act (1920), which controls maritime commerce and embargo with other countries, and the Foraker Act (1900), which defines the kind of self-governing body Puerto Rico was allowed to install. 

Puerto Rico is a Commonwealth by designation but not by definition. 

And unlike Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Virginia, it is not embedded into the Union, and Congress, through its application of the Constitution’s plenary clause — with respect to “territory or other property belonging to the United States” — inconsistently decides when Puerto Rico is a part of the Union, and when it should be treated as foreign. 

The former was exalted in a 2017 Supreme Court case that argued whether Puerto Ricans were eligible for Social Security benefits while living on the island. The court ruled Puerto Rico residents were not eligible.

Congress posed the Puerto Rico Status Act to address these gaps by way of resolving the matter of its political status and allowing Puerto Rican residents to decide what their standing is as a nation neither tied nor separated from the U.S., but it should be viewed as a rebranded version of past bills.

Statehood activists have long maintained that the only viable pathway to successful legislation is via Congress to obtain consensus from local government officials in Puerto Rico who can get on board with legislative language.

And if it feels like we’ve been here before, it’s because we have.

Even with a marginal majority in the House, the bill sinks in the Senate because it does not satisfy debates or deliberations, like in 2010, when the Puerto Rico Self Determination Act  (PRSDA) garnered a 223–169 majority in the House but did not survive in the higher chamber.

Statehood proponents, though, say the new status act wouldn't repeat the mistakes of the PRSDA. 

“The PRSDA wasn’t viable from the beginning due [to] its wildly unrealistic timeline and the inability to bind future congresses and the lack of support in PR itself. It would have truly been a federally mandated process,” one user, Matt Helder, a Communications Director, and lobbyist for the American Cancer Society, Cancer Action Network, wrote on Twitter.

But despite the fact that the Puerto Rico Status Act is also a federally mandated effort, statehood supporters maintain that it has garnered the necessary consensus from the statehood crowd in Puerto Rico.

Alberto Medina, a Puerto Rican Communications Strategist, described the Puerto Rico Status Act as “being allowed into a restaurant once the kitchen is already closed, and we’re expected to be happy about the fact that we’re still going to go hungry.”

“The bill is being passed now precisely because it has no chance of becoming law. By doing it in the final hours of a lame duck session, Democratic leaders can simply say they ran out of time to move forward with it instead of having to acknowledge that it’s a non-starter in the Senate,” Medina said. 

House Bill 8393’s structure has been put together by lauded House progressives like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is a longtime proponent of the Puerto Rico Self Determination Act, along with Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jennifer González, who identifies as Republican. 

The stark difference in ideological approach has often devolved into a back-and-forth as to whether U.S. Congress is serving the interests of the Puerto Rican population, a critique González has frequently leveled at Ocasio-Cortez. 

In serving a statehood-forward party in Puerto Rico, Gonzalez will often seek Republican support and not necessarily cater to the interests of House progressives or independence supporters.

And there is another factor at play. Independence is hugely unpopular among the voting population in Puerto Rico, and previous plebiscites have shown that statehood is the desired outcome for registered voters.

This is likely to repel support in Congress. 

“At the end of the day, the fundamental political dynamics in the U.S. haven’t changed: Congress will not seriously consider any Puerto Rico status bill as long as they think statehood is the most likely outcome,” Medina said. 

As recent as the 2022 midterm election cycle, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was spotted at a Herschel Walker rally one day before election day, repudiating the idea of statehood for Puerto Rico.

“That dilutes our power!” he said to the eager crowd. 

“Republicans are rabidly opposed to statehood, so there’s no way to get to 60 votes in the Senate. But even Senate Democrats are deeply skeptical of it and would prefer not to touch an issue that would unleash bitter partisan battles and even divisions within their own party,” Medina said. 

Notwithstanding, HB 8393 supporters favor a bill that provides a real effort toward a change in Puerto Rico’s dated political status, making it a desirable piece of legislation, regardless of whether the Senate would seriously consider taking it to a vote. 

“We’ll deal with the Senate later when the time comes, but for now, we need to focus on getting #PRStatusAct through the House,” another Twitter user, trans woman Joanna Cifredo, wrote. 

HB 8393 is poised to undergo a House vote on Friday, per Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.


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