It is a little-known fact that over a century ago, a coalition of labor movement leaders led the charge to extend U.S. citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico. This Labor Day, we should honor the legacy of this hard-fought victory, while recognizing that the 3.2 million U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico today are still being denied full equality, democracy and voting rights over 100 years after becoming citizens of our great nation. This blemish on American democracy can and must be corrected by Congress, and the best way to do so is by passing the Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act, H.R. 1522 in the House and S. 780 in the Senate.
During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico as a territory. And while it was commonly understood that any territory that was expected to potentially become a state would be granted citizenship and the rights thereof, many in positions of power in the early 1900s opposed citizenship for Puerto Ricans due to racist ideas.
The question of citizenship for new territories came to the Supreme Court in what are now known as the “insular cases.” The insular cases decreed that territories like Puerto Rico would not be incorporated into the U.S. or their residents be given American citizenship without an act of Congress. The inherent racism of the time was clear in the opinions from the Supreme Court, which stated Puerto Rico was “inhabited by alien races,” and President Theodore Roosevelt labeling those in the territories as “mere savages.”
Thankfully, those on the island, particularly labor leaders, did not take this silently.
Santiago Iglesias was a Spanish-born labor organizer in Puerto Rico who later became the island’s resident commissioner in Congress and founder of the Puerto Rico Socialist Party (a pro-union party). He joined together with Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, to fight for the passage of legislation to grant U.S. citizenship to those living in Puerto Rico.
Through persistent and aggressive advocacy, barely a month before the U.S. entered World War I in 1917 the Jones-Shafroth Act was signed into law granting U.S. citizenship to those who lived and were born in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, despite this change in status, Puerto Ricans continued to live as second-class American citizens without voting representation in Congress, without the right to vote for president and without equal treatment under federal laws. This is why Santiago Iglesias did not stop there. After being elected resident commissioner under a coalition of his Socialist Party with the Union Republican Party, in 1934 the non-voting representative in Congress introduced the very first bill for Puerto Rico’s admission as a state.
The second Puerto Rico statehood admission bill was introduced by my great-grandfather Bolivar Pagán, who succeeded Iglesias in Congress and then won reelection to a full term as resident commissioner. The fight for statehood and equal treatment under the law that was waged by labor leaders like Iglesias and my great-grandfather is still going on today.
Puerto Rico’s current status as a territory has limited the island’s economic development potential by imposing structural disadvantages before it can even begin to compete in the free market. The uncertainty about Puerto Rico’s future, which could still technically be made an independent republic, is a systemic risk that limits investment on the island. And the inequality under federal laws and programs means that local wages, income levels, workforce participation rates and the social safety net are all well below stateside standards.
That is why it should surprise nobody that in November 2020, when those on the island went to the polls and were asked if they wanted Puerto Rico to be admitted to the union as a state, the clear majority voted in favor. This vote came on the heels of two others in 2017 and 2012, where voters also rejected the current territory status and favored statehood among the non-territory options.
It is far past time for Congress to act. Our U.S. senators and representatives have the power to fix this century-long injustice. On this Labor Day, let’s honor the labor leaders who bravely advocated for U.S. citizenship for Puerto Rico by passing the Puerto Rico Statehood Admissions Act and finally make good on America’s founding promises of government by consent of the governed and equal justice under the law for our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.