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  • Arielle Schultz

Puerto Rico Needs Statehood Now

The cannons outside of the Siuda House, home of the admissions office, which were a gift from Elihu Root, class of 1864 and US Secretary of War, as an artifact from the Spanish American War, which ended with the Treaty of Paris and the annexation of Puerto Rico by the US. Read more here: | Photo by Gabriel Bit-Babik, Staff Photographer

November 3rd, 2020, was a day of nail-biting anticipation for all of us. Months of chaos and chanting in the street, months of endless campaigning, and months of anxiety-inducing election coverage on the news had finally come to fruition. The fate of the next four years, or even the rest of our lives, was being decided. The right and the left could both agree on one thing: the American identity was on the ballot. Even though most of us still had to attend work or school and carry on with our daily lives, we all had one thing on our mind, the election. Most U.S. citizens from California to Mississippi to remote army bases all had a voice in this monumental decision. However, the 3 million U.S. citizens living on the island of Puerto Rico did not.

Moreover, Biden’s electoral victory was perceived by many as a beacon of hope as he was seen as someone who could herald in the change that many deemed impossible under Trump’s administration. However, Biden has done little to nothing to improve suffrage for the residents of Puerto Rico. While Biden’s administration has created task forces in an attempt to improve Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, he has yet to do anything to remedy its lack of statehood. Puerto Rican senator Carmelo Ríos Santiago remarked that “The White House has gone tone-deaf” after disappointment that Biden has done nothing to encourage Puerto Rico’s statehood. This failure is even more dismaying after he promised in his campaign that he would allow the people of Puerto Rico to “determine their own status.”

Ever since the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the U.S. has been in control of this Caribbean island but has yet to give it the proper care it gravely needs and deserves. In 1917, the residents of Puerto Rico were rightfully granted U.S. citizenship. However, Puerto Ricans, who are just as American as we are in my home state of California and here in New York, do not receive the support they require. Now the island, 3 million residents and counting, faces tremendous threats such as the island’s overwhelming poverty and almost constant hurricane damage. According to the 2018 Census, 43 percent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty. Additionally, Puerto Ricans are still reeling from the powerful effects of Hurricane Maria and have not received nearly enough government aid, other than paper towels of course. Marilian Vázquez, a resident of Puerto Rico, said that she still does not “feel safe” living in such an area so vulnerable to natural disasters without the government’s proper support. Because of the United States’ negligence of the island, many Puerto Ricans are forced to abandon their native land and move to mainland America in search of a more prosperous life. If Puerto Rico were to be the 51st state, it would no doubt finally receive the assistance the people require and no longer be considered second-class citizens by the U.S. While Puerto Rico is currently considered a U.S. territory, it needs to be characterized as an official American state.

While there is no official quota of population nor size that a U.S. territory must meet to be granted statehood, Puerto Rico shares similar population sizes and mileage of land as many U.S. states. According to Pew Research’s data collected in 2018, the island has around 3.2 million residents. Puerto Rico shares similar sizes to states such as Iowa, Utah, and Connecticut, as well as having a higher population than 20 other states. Puerto Rico even has six times the population of Wyoming, which has the lowest population of any state. Because Puerto Rico’s population is comparable, if not outright larger, to many states, it would only be logical for the federal government to grant the territory statehood as well. One can observe a similar trend when observing the land size of U.S. states. While Puerto Rico would be a relatively small state if it were to be given statehood, with 3515 square miles, it would be larger than some official states. For example, the island is almost double the size of Delaware and triple the size of Rhode Island. If an area of land that minute can be a state, there should be no objections as to why Puerto Rico can be one as well.

Not only does granting Puerto Rico statehood make sense from a numerical standpoint, it is financially logical as well. Like U.S. citizens living in the other 50 states, Puerto Ricans have to pay federal taxes. While it has been established that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, many, including President Donald J. Trump, do not realize that they are substantial American taxpayers as well. After the events of Hurricane Maria in 2017, Trump stated during a recorded briefing, “I hate to say it, Puerto Rico, you’ve thrown our budget out of whack. We’ve spent a lot of money in Puerto Rico.” However, as stated by a spokesperson for FEMA, the Trump administration only handed Puerto Rico the scant amount of 35 million dollars of hurricane aid. These numbers seem particularly low when you compare them to the 691 million dollars readily gifted to Florida after Hurricane Irma and the 323 million dollars eagerly donated to Texas after Hurricane Harvey, according to FEMA financial reports. According to CNN, 2,975 Puerto Ricans died because of the effects of Hurricane Maria, while Florida only suffered 72 casualties and Texas had 37. The scant relief Puerto Rico received clearly reveals how the people of the island are viewed by the United States: second-class citizens.

However, as stated earlier, if they are granted statehood, Puerto Rico may finally be given the attention they deserve and be treated on par with the other 50 states. While 35 million dollars may have been considered much too exorbitant by Trump, Puerto Ricans paid almost 103 times that amount in federal taxes in 2016. Even without paying federal income taxes, Vox reports that Puerto Rico handed over 3.6 billion U.S. dollars to the federal government. Because of their lack of current statehood, unless a Puerto Rican is a worker for the U.S. government, residents do not have to pay federal income taxes. However, they pay the federal taxes that mainland citizens pay, such as payroll taxes, social security taxes, business taxes, estate taxes, and more. Not only would the act of Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state benefit the Puerto Ricans, but it would also financially benefit the U.S. government. According to financial analyst Richard Barrington, states with similar population sizes to Puerto Rico paid around 10 billion U.S. dollars in federal taxes in 2020. If Puerto Rico is granted statehood, it will pay federal income taxes as well, no doubt paying around 10 billion dollars and significantly increasing the federal budget.

Even though Puerto Ricans pay many of the same taxes that mainland U.S. citizens pay and have more U.S. citizens residing in its territory than many other states, they continue to lack sufficient government representation. Unlike the other 50 states, they unfortunately do not have any members in the Senate nor House of Representatives. Ever since the first sparks of the American Revolutionary War, the term “no taxation without representation” was popularized in retaliation to the increasing British taxes for the colonies. After we won our independence, this remained a vital principle of the American identity. However, we, as Americans, have betrayed our ancestors and what they fought for. By continuing to treat the people of Puerto Rico the same way the British treated the colonists, we have become much too similar to the empire we fought so hard to gain our independence from almost 250 years ago. The people of Puerto Rico need and want representation in our government. They need statehood. How can we pride ourselves on being one of the pillars of democracy when we do not even allow all of our citizens to have representation? How can we pride ourselves on being one of the greatest countries in the world when we continue to let our very own U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico die because they lack aid from the government? If we finally grant them statehood after more than one hundred years, they will be treated in the same manner as Florida and Texas. With Puerto Rico being the 51st state, we will, at last, save these once forgotten American lives.

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