The decades-long debates surrounding D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam statehood have been reignited. What’s the best option?
The decades-long conversation around statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico has been ramping up in Congress. A bill granting D.C. statehood passed in the House of Representatives on April 22, though it faces slim odds in the split Senate.
Meanwhile, the U.S. territory Puerto Rico has two current options — the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act and the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act.
Introduced in March by Rep. Darren Soto, D-Florida, the Statehood Admission Act would grant the island statehood.
“We hear pleas of equality from our fellow Americans back on the island,” Soto said. “And we must recognize that a majority has asked us for statehood, and we must respect it.”
The Self-Determination Act would place the decision and conversation surrounding statehood into the hands of elected delegates and federal officials. That bill was first introduced in 2007 and reintroduced to the House in March by New York Democratic Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
No pending legislation for another U.S. territory to become a new state has been drafted, but Guam officials have called for statehood while others on the Pacific island have marched for independence and self-determination.
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Activists hold signs as they take part in a rally in support of DC statehood near the US Capitol in Washington, DC on March 22, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 0 ORIG FILE ID: 116883226_USW.jpg (Photo: MANDEL NGAN, AFP via Getty Images)
Why vote for statehood?
Supporters of statehood in all three territories push the same argument — without representation in Congress, the residents have a limited voice.
Puerto Rican and Guam residents are U.S. citizens, but they cannot vote for president and do not have a voting member in Congress. D.C. residents also do not have a voting representative in Congress, but they are allowed to vote for president.
“Washingtonians … pay taxes, fight in our wars, contribute to the economic life of our country. But for centuries, they have been denied their right to representation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a news conference on April 21.
Democrats view statehood for D.C., and its 46% Black population, as a civil rights issue directly disenfranchising residents.
In a 2016 referendum, 79% of D.C. residents voted in favor of a petition to become a state. The overwhelming support for statehood is the highest margin of support when compared to Puerto Rico and Guam residents.
With about 55% voter turnout, 52.34% of Puerto Ricans voted yes to statehood in a November 2020 plebiscite, according to Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission.
Victoria Colón, who lives in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, told USA TODAY her support for statehood stems from wanting equal access to benefits, assistance and funds that are given to residents on the mainland.
Although Puerto Ricans don’t pay federal income taxes, they pay payroll taxes which fund federal programs such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. States are given open-ended fundings to these programs while Puerto Rico has a spending cap.
“I was born and raised and will forever stay on this island, but I want us to get better. We’re Americans and should be given the same access to those on the mainland,” Colón said.
Similar to Colón’s argument, Tina Rose Muña Barnes, a senator in the Guam Legislature, told USA TODAY that statehood would end the federal government’s ability to exclude or limit Guam residents from benefit programs.
“On a personal note, I am a proud American who favors a closer political relationship with the United States. That said, I also support our people’s right to self-determination, meaning the right to determine, for ourselves, what our future political status should be.” Muña Barnes said. “At the end of the day, this is an issue for the community as a whole to decide, not any one or small group of individuals.”
Unlike D.C. and Puerto Rico, Guam native residents were denied a political status plebiscite.
The plebiscite, where residents would vote for independence, statehood or free association with the United States was ruled as illegally race-based and violates constitutional protections by the federal courts, according to Pacific Daily News.
Guam nativeVicky Duenas told USA TODAY an island-wide plebiscite would prove residents seek closer ties to the U.S.
After a political status plebiscite was ruled ineligible, Guam residents rally for self-determination. (Photo: Tina Rose Muña Barnes)
If not statehood, then what?
Efraín Vázquez-Vera, a University of Puerto Rico professor and former assistant secretary of state of the island, said there are no “pleas” for statehood from Puerto Ricans as Rep. Darren Soto previously stated.
Puerto Rican’s focus is on the economic recession, COVID-19 pandemic and rising unemployment rates, Vázquez-Vera told USA TODAY. He also argues a plebiscite that only accounted for 55% of the island isn’t a fair assessment of the entire island’s opinion.
However, he added that the Self-Determination Act is a step in the right direction if the delegates are lawyers and civil workers rather than politicians.
“The decision and conversation should come from working Puerto Ricans, not the politicians who have misused funds and have been historically corrupt,” Vázquez-Vera said in Spanish.
Opinions are still mixed on whether Washington D.C.'s 712,000 residents should be granted full citizenship. D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss and Cato Institute's Roger Pilon breakdown the different viewpoints. (March 23)
The argument against statehood for D.C. also comes down to politics. Republicans have called the bill a ploy to garner more Democratic votes in Congress.
The Democratic presidential nominee has captured over 89% of the vote in D.C., since 2000, according to the Brookings Institute.
North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, and Tennessee Rep. James Comer, both Republicans, have voiced their concern over Democrats intentions with D.C. statehood.
“D.C. is a pawn being used by congressional Democrats to gain power,” Foxx said after Bowser said D.C. was “more than slightly Democratic.”
Guam residents and local leaders rally for independence from the U.S. (Photo: Michael Lujan Bevacqua)
Meanwhile, in Guam, independence supporters argue statehood wouldn’t further Guam’s interests and economic needs.
Michael Lujan Bevacqua, from the Kabesa and Bittot clans in Guam, is a leader in the Guam independence movement, serving with Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero as co-chair for Independent Guåhan, which is a group dedicated to educating the island community about decolonization.
Their biggest argument for independence? Guam natives don’t speak for Guam, the U.S. does.
Lujan Bevacqua told USA TODAY independence would allow Guam to interact with its bordering Asian countries and participate in global conversations such as climate change and fish stocks.
To the U.S., Guam is just a “strategic military colony,” Lujan Bevacqua said. In April, when Leon Guerrero discovered a military base was being built where ancient human remains were found, she said she was devastated.
Telena Nelson, a senator in the Guam Legislature, launched an investigation into the construction of U.S. Marine Corps Camp Blaz in the village of Dededo in the northern part of the island, according to the Guardian.
The incident pushed Leon Guerrero to believe that without a compromise, representation or voice within the U.S., independence is the only option.
“There was no respect for our culture and ancestors in that situation,” Leon Guerrero told USA TODAY. “If we can’t find a way to find a balance and a say with the U.S., I believe independence is risky but the best solution,”
Former governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Rossello, comments on the effort seeking to request statehood for the island.
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