Last Sunday, George Will offered the Republican Party a way out of its present conundrum with respect to the growing Latino population. This is a population that cares deeply about the immigration issue, both as a matter of self-interest and as a symbolic issue. The conundrum is this: how to address the immigration debate without at the same time alienating Latinos? For an answer, Will looked to Luis Fortuño, governor of Puerto Rico and a member of the Republican Party.
According to Fortuño, the solution is simple: Republicans must couple their insistence on border control with support for statehood for Puerto Rico. Doing this would soften the Republican message of immigration reform. Interestingly, as Fortuño well knows, not all Latinos are the same, nor do they care about the same issues. Crucial to his argument is his belief that Latinos now share a common consciousness, thanks to many factors, including Spanish network television such as Telemundo and Univisión.*
* This makes no sense to me. I can’t see how an immigrant living illegally in Phoenix will find any comfort within a party that closed down the border and wishes to send him back across the border yet granted full citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico for politically expedient reasons. Does Fortuño really think Latinos are that stupid?
The debate over the status of Puerto Rico presents very difficult questions about democratic citizenship, sovereignty, and American constitutionalism. Unfortunately, Fortuño does not engage these questions. Instead, Will and Fortuño focus their attention on the practical and political realities of Puerto Rican statehood. This is unfortunate because the status question, and the future of millions of American citizens living on the island, devolves into a question of political expediency.
Nobody said colonialism would be easy.
At the heart of this debate is the question of self-determination, as well as H.R. 2499, also known as the Puerto Rico Democracy Act. This legislation would mark the first time that the U.S. Congress actively supports resolution of the status question through a plebiscite. This bill has received much Republican support, from Fortuño himself as well as leading Republicans Eric Cantor, Mike Pence, and Jeb Hensarling. It is also true, and Will underscores, that every President from Truman onward supported the right of the people of Puerto Rico to determine their collective fate. These are the easy questions. But as he notes, there are also problems.
· The per capita income of the island is half that of the poorest state – Mississippi – and twenty seven percent of the richest state – Connecticut.
· Puerto Rico is “a distinct cultural and linguistic entity,” which goes to the question whether the island “belongs in the federal union.”
· Puerto Ricans on the island only pay federal income taxes on income gained off the island.
· Island residents are lukewarm at best about joining the union, as evidenced by the three referenda, in 1967, 1993, and 1998. In contrast, residents of Hawaii and Alaska supported statehood in overwhelming numbers.
Fortuño responds to these concerns capably, but the better question is why these are issues are part of the debate at all. Take, for example, the income tax issue. To the critique that island residents, American citizens at birth, do not have representation in the U.S. Congress, a leading response is that island residents do not pay income taxes. Maybe this is unfair (naïve?) on my part, but I don’t have a clue about how to respond to that argument. How is the income tax question connected to the rights of citizenship? The point is not that island residents are shirking their duties of citizenship, i.e., paying taxes, and thus undeserving of statehood. Rather, the point is that island residents do not pay federal income taxes because Congress chooses not to tax their income on the island. Assuming statehood becomes a reality, then paying income taxes follows. What’s so hard about that?
Anyone who is serious about the status question must pay close attention to the historical context that has placed the island in the difficult position it finds itself today. That is to say, “critics from the U.S. as well as Puerto Rico must be prepared to acknowledge that the United States has played no small role in suborning the Puerto Rican independence movement and complicating the island’s economy.”
Make no mistake: the questions surrounding the present status of Puerto Rico are not easy. And yet, the one question any self-respecting democracy must ask itself is whether it should hold any part of its citizenry in colonial status in perpetuity. I think this question has a right answer, one that does not hinge on the political expediencies of the day. The status of Puerto Rico is an embarrassment that should come to an end once and for all.