Can Puerto Rican statehood help heal our fractured country?

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

At a time when it seems like our country couldn’t possibly be more divided, there are signs of hope for a long overdue bipartisan effort.

Recently, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) introduced legislation in support for Puerto Rico statehood. Last Congress, several Republican lawmakers cosponsored similar legislation suggesting that Puerto Rico could bring folks together from across the ideological spectrum. 

And unlike the D.C.  statehood issue, the case for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to become a state has no constitutional roadblocks and has broad bipartisan support.

Puerto Ricans living on the island are hardworking, industrious and doggedly determined even after reeling from natural disasters and living through a financial crisis that has decimated much of its local economy in recent years.

The same can be said of Puerto Ricans living on the mainland.

In my case, I was able to serve in the U.S. Airforce, start a business and most recently serve in an advisory role to help start our country’s first Latino museum despite being raised by a single mother and experiencing many bouts of hunger. My story is similar to so many other Puerto Ricans who are not beholden to either political party but love and cherish our country.

It may help explain why Puerto Ricans have participated in every major U.S. military engagement since World War I and include the 65th Infantry Regiment – a Puerto Rican regiment in the U.S. army distinguishing itself for its legendary exploits in Korea and is one of the most highly decorated combat units in that conflict.

Unfortunately, for over a century, millions of Puerto Ricans have been confined to what can only be described as second-class citizens. Unable to vote in presidential elections, but still liable to pay federal taxes, 3.2 million Puerto Ricans are deprived of their rights as U.S. citizens. And although they are well represented by Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón in the U.S. House, she is a non-voting member.

As a result of this democratic imbalance, Puerto Rico has been unable to receive full funding for important federal social safety net programs like Medicaid, Medicare and SNAP for the Island’s most vulnerable community. Additionally, Puerto Ricans must contend with the negative effects of the Jones Act which artificially elevates the cost of living on the Island due to federally mandated trade regulations.

But if Puerto Rico were to become a state, the island would be treated equally under federal laws and be in a better position to plan for their financial future. Puerto Rico could emerge from its debt crisis by leveraging its geographic position as a natural trade bridge between Latin America and the Caribbean and grow its local economy.

Of course, not everyone is convinced that pursuing Puerto Rican statehood is a good idea.

Some believe that Puerto Rico would be a guaranteed liberal Democratic stronghold, but that is simply not accurate. Puerto Rican voters are socially conservative and have had a long history of supporting politicians from both parties.

Because they are “swing voters,” some lawmakers, including progressive firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is not so sure Puerto Rican statehood is such a great idea. In fact, she recently introduced legislation that would slow-walk any momentum towards statehood.

Instead of focusing on Puerto Rican statehood, the most partisan members are looking to get fully behind DC statehood. Here Democrats averaged 92% of the vote from the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections in D.C. This is why Democrats in Washington are prioritizing voting rights in D.C. over Puerto Rico.

Lawmakers should put partisan differences aside and do what is right by supporting Puerto Rican statehood. Millions of our fellow Americans have been deprived of their full rights of being a U.S. citizen.

The time has come to make room for our country’s 51st state. Congress should act without delay.

Danny Vargas is the president of VARCom Solutions, a consulting company, Chairman Emeritus of Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino and a U.S. Air Force veteran.


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