The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico held a referendum in June of 2017 where 97.18% of voters favored statehood. The vote faced criticism for low turnout, at just 23%, due to a boycott by members of the political party on the island in favor of remaining a territory. However, in a previous referendum with higher turnout, a slim majority of voters also advocated for Puerto Rico to become a state.
In order for such a change to take place, the U.S. Congress would have to decide to grant them statehood.
A public hearing
Earlier this month, a group of U.S. legislators visiting Puerto Rico held a public hearing where residents voiced concerns about the pace of federal hurricane recovery funds and other issues facing the U.S. territory. The island is in the midst of a 12-year recession and carries more than $70 billion in public debt. Many of those who spoke at the public hearing decried the austerity measures imposed by the federal control board that oversees the territory’s finances. Others complained about the recent federal ban on Puerto Rico’s cockfighting industry.
Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1898. Residents of the island were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917. The territory is a “Free Associated State,” which grants it certain rights including a non-voting representative in Congress and the right to vote in presidential primaries (but not presidential elections).
Puerto Rico is the largest U.S. territory by far. Others include Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Over the years, Puerto Rico’s congressional delegates have introduced multiple bills that would have made the island a state if its residents voted for statehood, but those bills all failed.
Puerto Rican residents only have to pay federal income taxes on work performed in the United States or in the District of Colombia. They do pay Social Security and Medicare taxes.
Puerto Ricans are still recovering from the destruction of Hurricane Maria nearly two years ago. Some municipalities are struggling in part because they have still not been fully reimbursed by the federal government for work already completed after the hurricane.
Pros and cons
Proponents - like Will Arvelo, Director at the New Hampshire Division of Economic Development-argue that it is hypocritical for the United States to deny American citizens in Puerto Rico the rights of statehood. Representation in Congress and the right to vote for president, for example, could increase Washington’s responsiveness to the humanitarian crisis on the island. They point out that Puerto Ricans have fought and died alongside citizens of other states in every war since the Spanish-American War.
Opponents of granting statehood to Puerto Rico point to the financial situation there. Because of poor economic conditions on the island, the new state would likely require significant support from the federal government. President Donald Trump has argued Puerto Rico’s leaders are responsible for a poor response to Hurricane Maria, and they should not be rewarded with statehood. Also, statehood could cause companies that currently operate in Puerto Rico to leave the island in order to avoid federal corporate taxes.