Feb 14, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Puerto Rico statehood: What you need to know

Puerto Rico's governor Pedro Pierluisi stands next to a Puerto Rican flag and US flag

Puerto Rico's governor Pedro Pierluisi in San Juan in August 2019. Photo: Alejandro Granadillo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Puerto Rican statehood, supported by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, has been a long-standing goal for some Democrats and championed by progressives as a way to grant the island self-determination.

Where it stands: Puerto Rico has held six non-binding referendums on its status, including becoming a U.S. state, since 1967. Residents most recently voted in favor of statehood last November. Both of Pierluisi's predecessors, Wanda Vázquez and Ricardo Rosselló, also supported statehood.

The big picture: Recent crises and natural disasters have boosted calls for statehood.

  • Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane, caused over 3,000 deaths as the worst natural disaster to hit the island to date. Rosselló asked former President Trump to consider statehood on the anniversary of the lethal storm, saying that territory status impeded recovery.
  • The island has held $72 billion in debt for years, but can't file for bankruptcy as cities or counties in the U.S. mainland can. Some voters in Puerto Rico's 2017 plebiscite expressed hope that statehood could allow the government to provide relief.

How it works: Any change in Puerto Rico's status would require congressional approval, which has been a significant roadblock.

  • The island's current governor, as well as its last two, have all been part of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party.
  • Puerto Rico's other major political party, the Popular Democratic Party, advocates for keeping the status quo as a self-governing unincorporated U.S. territory.
  • Choices on past referendums have included statehood, the status quo, or independence from the U.S. Only 1.5% of voters chose independence in 2017, the last time the question was specifically asked.
  • 2020's referendum on statehood simply asked "Should Puerto Rico be immediately admitted into the Union as a state?" 52% of voters said "yes."

Between the lines: Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz) told NBC News last year that if Puerto Rico gained statehood, Republicans would "never get the Senate back again."

  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell while campaigning in Kentucky in August listed the island's statehood as proof of Democrats' extreme agenda.
  • The Republican Party of Puerto Rico supports statehood, and Puerto Rican statehood is a part of the Republican National Committee platform.

What to watch: The island's top officials are optimistic that they can build support for statehood in the House but realize the bill would face an uphill battle against Republicans in the Senate, where Democrats hold a 50-50 split with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote.

  • A spokesperson for House Natural Resources Committee chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told the Hill in late January that he plans to hold a hearing on Puerto Rico statehood "early in this Congress."
  • During the presidential campaign, Biden said he would work with Puerto Rico officials who support "each of the status options" for the island's political future.
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