The House Committee on Oversight and Reform passed a bill on April 14 that would grant D.C. statehood. Concurrently, the Committee on Natural Resources’ Office of Insular Affairs hosted a legislative hearing on two competing bills regarding the future of Puerto Rican statehood. There have been calls to grant statehood to Washington, D.C and Puerto Rico in the United States. for decades, with both often viewed through a similar lens in American partisan politics. Many Republican representatives, especially in the wake of the Democratic Party’s presidential and congressional victories in the 2020 election, view the renewed interest in D.C. and Puerto Rican statehood as a power grab aimed at gaining four more left-leaning seats in the Senate.
However, it would be a disservice to both of these territories to view their potential shifts toward statehood in a monolithic way. Distinct local issues in D.C. and Puerto Rico affect both the merits of attaining statehood and the respective populations’ general consensuses on what should be done. Ultimately, in order to promote each of these territories’ self-determination, we have to understand the complex motivating factors surrounding each bid for statehood in their differing contexts.
For D.C. residents, the issue of statehood is a modern-day manifestation of taxation without representation.
“There are a lot of more local reasons for D.C. to be a state that are overlooked a lot,” Elena Pastreich, a senior from D.C., wrote in an electronic message to the Daily. Not having statehood leaves D.C. residents without a full set of rights, with many residents subjected to systemic inequality as a result. The district is both extremely diverse and hosts a large proportion of Black residents; 47% of residents in the territory identify as Black. Leaving this large population without a say in local issues echoes the long history of voter disenfranchisement and injustice that these groups, especially Black voters, have faced at the hands of the U.S. government.
Furthermore, as a territory with a population over 700,000 — comparable to the size of some states — D.C. is home to a lot of people who would benefit more from self-governance than federal control.
“Congress has a lot of say in local affairs/budget when those things aren’t actually a priority for congress,” Pastreich said. Thus, governance of the territory is often mishandled at the expense of its population. For example, the federal government gave D.C. far less money to distribute stimulus checks during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic than it did to any of the 50 states.
These sentiments are shared by most of the D.C. population as well as their local government. Pushback from residents is minimal, with Pastreich attributing some opposition to a general misconception about what D.C. statehood would entail.
“I don’t think statehood would give people who work in the federal government significantly more power… A lot of people [who live in D.C.] think that … which is not really true.”
Thus, even though this increase in power is extremely unlikely to occur, personal beliefs and differing political leanings may factor into a resident’s opinion on the issue of statehood. However, according to residents like Pastreich, the overwhelming majority of D.C.’s communities feel they deserve voting representation and a promotion to statehood.
The situation in Puerto Rico is much more nuanced, with a 2020 referendum reporting that 53% of Puerto Rican voters favored statehood while 47% rejected it. There are some benefits to making Puerto Rico a state rather than a territory; having full access to federal benefits would help the territory deal with financial difficulties, natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, having voting representatives in Congress would give Puerto Rico a greater say in their government.
However, many Puerto Rican citizens are concerned that becoming a state is just another neocolonial measure by a Western power. Mariana Janer-Agrelot, a first-year from Puerto Rico, wrote in an electronic message to the Daily that, “PR should be an independent country. We are essentially being oppressed by an imperialist country that does not bother to care for the needs of PR. We have suffered too much under their abuses.”
One of the most prominent and recent abuses by the United States was its handling of Hurricane Maria’s aftermath. The federal government’s lack of support for the Puerto Rican population in the wake of the natural disaster harmed many communities.
“The amount of corruption that came out of that emergency literally killed thousands because of the mismanagement of emergency resources,” Janer-Agrelot said.
Furthermore, the results of the split referendum have been regarded as illegitimate by some, following the discovery of potentially large numbers of uncounted votes and low rates of voter turnout. Thus, the recent referendum may not have accurately captured Puerto Ricans’ views on this issue.
Many Puerto Rican activists and advocates in Congress, including Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez, believe that Puerto Rico should be entitled to self-determination. Their proposal calls for a status convention where Puerto Ricans would be able to consider a range of options for the island, including statehood, independence and a more empowered association with the U.S. Ultimately, legislation like this would rightly provide Puerto Ricans the space to decide their own territorial status and allow Puerto Rican statehood to be viewed as a separate issue from D.C. statehood.