(The Hill) – Lawmakers in the House introduced a bill that would end Puerto Rico’s status as a territory, allowing the island’s residents to choose between three status options.
The bill, a result of negotiations between lawmakers who supported statehood for the territory and lawmakers who wanted to hold a status convention, was formally introduced by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
“Finding a resolution to Puerto Rico’s political status has been one of my top priorities as Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. But I know that the decolonization of Puerto Rico shouldn’t be a decision made by lawmakers in Washington alone. That’s why I’m so proud of both the work and commitment of my colleagues toward incorporating feedback from the leaders and residents of Puerto Rico into this final bill,” Grijalva said in a statement.
The bill’s three options for an upcoming status referendum are statehood for Puerto Rico, independence from the United States, and “sovereignty in free association with the United States.”
The third option would put Puerto Rico in a similar situation as the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia — former U.S. trust territories that gained independence in the 20th century and signed a compact of free association.
Under the bill, Puerto Ricans would head to the polls to vote on a federally sponsored plebiscite with all three options on the ballot, and a runoff if any option fails to get more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round.
Before that can happen, however, the bill needs to be rushed through Congress before a new legislature is ushered in following November’s midterm elections.
“We should be able to pass it out of committee in July and then have a floor vote in September. The Senate will have plenty of time after that to respect the will of the people of Puerto Rico,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), one of the lead sponsors of the bill.
The bill’s passage through the House seems likely, as negotiations to build the consensus legislation were sponsored and hosted by House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
In the often-tense negotiations, statehood proponents Soto and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-P.R.) faced off against two top status convention proponents, New York Democratic Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“In this bill, we have a compromise that does not stack the deck in favor of one outcome or another but establishes a fair and democratic process for self-determination. I thank my counterparts, both Democrat and Republican for their good-faith efforts in putting this legislation together,” Velázquez said in a statement.
“I am proud of the joint collaborative effort that we have achieved to provide a mechanism to end Puerto Rico’s unjust territorial status. With this legislation, Congress rejects the status quo and allows voters to decide their future with three constitutionally viable options,” González-Colón said.
While the bill does have a measure of bipartisan support, bolstered by González-Colón’s sponsorship, it’s unclear whether all Senate Democrats and at least 10 Senate Republicans will vote for it to become law.
And a packed Senate schedule could present another challenge for the bill, although its prospects could rise during a lame-duck session.
Still, if the bill were to pass Congress, its options would need to be aptly communicated to Puerto Ricans.
While most polls show discontent with the current territorial status, widely perceived as a colonial vestige, the island’s politics have long centered around the question of statehood versus sovereignty.
The Puerto Rico Status Act includes funding for an educational program to teach Puerto Rican voters the consequences of each option ahead of a plebiscite.
Since the bill’s preliminary language was introduced in May, the issue of U.S. citizenship under the independence and free association options has emerged as a key battleground.
Under independence, Puerto Ricans who are already U.S. citizens would be allowed to keep their citizenship, but their children would not inherit U.S. citizenship or nationality.
Under free association, Puerto Ricans who are already U.S. citizens would keep their citizenship and would pass down their citizenship to their children if both parents are U.S. citizens for as long as the first Articles of Free Association last.
However, a birth within Puerto Rican territory would no longer grant U.S. citizenship to a child.
Under statehood, the U.S. citizenship of Puerto Ricans would come under the protection of the U.S. Constitution and become essentially irrevocable.