Last week was historic for the people of Puerto Rico.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill--H.R. 8393, the Puerto Rico Status Act--that could move Puerto Rico away from its current status as a U.S. territory toward a new political future. The current era for the island could finally see its long overdue end, once and for all.
In the more than 120 years since Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War, territory status and political limbo have deprived the island and its residents of the ability to fully govern themselves. The result has been paternalistic, unjust federal policies that have stymied Puerto Rico's social and economic development and denied its residents equity.
While most people living on Puerto Rico agree that its territory status must end, the question of what the island's political status should be--statehood, independence, or sovereignty in free association with the U.S.--is not answered easily. The debate spans generations and is shaped by social, cultural, and political dynamics. Heated discussions accompany family gatherings, students study its history in classrooms, and local parties divide themselves along political status lines. The Puerto Rico Status Act finally gives the people of Puerto Rico the chance to choose the political status they want with their vote.
Since political status affects so many aspects of Puerto Rican life--from voting power to federal programs like Medicaid to citizenship, immigration, and more--it's critical that voters understand exactly what a new status would look like and how the transition would occur. The Puerto Rico Status Act is the first time that Congress has taken on this task and provided voters the information they need to confidently make a choice about their future.
And, unlike past votes, this bill requires Congress to honor the vote and implement the political status chosen by the majority.?The voice of the people of Puerto Rico can no longer be ignored.
Resolving Puerto Rico's political status has been a top priority for the House Committee on Natural Resources, which I chair, for many years. Two bills introduced earlier this Congress promoted two long standing, but vastly different and fiercely debated, decolonization mechanisms: H.R. 1522, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, and H.R. 2070, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021.
With the guidance of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the sponsors of the two bills -- Reps. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Jenniffer González-Colón (R-Puerto Rico), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) -- came together to seek a compromise that would be supported by a majority of members of Congress. The bipartisan Puerto Rico Status Act is the result of that effort.
Immediately after reaching that compromise, my colleagues and I visited Puerto Rico to gather feedback on the draft bill directly from residents and elected officials. We met with officials from each of Puerto Rico's political parties?and held a public forum attended by more than 400 residents, many of whom shared impassioned public statements. Those who couldn't attend submitted written comments via an innovative online feedback tool. Each comment was considered in drafting the final text of the Puerto Rico Status Act.
Like any compromise, this bill doesn't entirely satisfy the ideals of any one side of Puerto Rico's political status debate. But more importantly, it offers a real opportunity for a fair, transparent process to the island at last. With its passage in the House, the Puerto Rico Status Act joins the ranks of historic legislation, like the For the People Act and the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, to enhance and enshrine the democratic ideals of this country.
The importance of this bill shows in the number of people in Puerto Rico who participated in the legislative process and shared their input to shape this historic piece of legislation. Now it is time for the U.S. Senate to capitalize on this moment and take the next step to make decolonization of Puerto Rico the law. The more than 3 million Americans in Puerto Rico will be paying close attention.