State Rep. Bob Cortes has introduced a measure that would urge Congress to take steps to expand citizenship rights for people of Puerto Rico and improve the commonwealth’s opportunity for statehood, without actually dealing directly with the statehood issue.
House Memorial 147 calls on Congress to address inequalities Puerto Rico and its residents face that date to a 1922 Supreme Court ruling that put the island and its people on a different track than any of the previous American territories that became states.
Cortes, an Altamonte Springs Republican with Puerto Rican heritage, said the approach is novel, not something he’s seen proposed anywhere else. It aims to push for incorporated territory status for Puerto Rico, something granted as a precursor to potential statehood to Hawaii, Alaska and all other states added to the union since the original 13 colonies formed the United States.
Puerto Rico was never granted status as an incorporated territory of the United States in part because of ramifications of the 1922 Supreme Court decision in Balzac vs. Puerto Rico, providing for a unique relationship between the federal government and the territory of Puerto Rico and its residents, he said.
And that relationship fosters inequality, Cortes argued, because Puerto Rico residents – including those who might have been born and raised stateside as full American citizens who then moved to live on the island – receive back limited federal benefits even though they pay full payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicaid, and in some cases federal income taxes. And the lack of status as an incorporated territory means the island does not have the necessary pre-statehood government institutions that territories such as Hawaii, Alaska, and Louisiana established before applying for statehood.
It’s part of the reason, he argued, that Puerto Ricans are flooding into Florida as part of a mass migration, seeking not just economic opportunity but full citizenship-status benefits they can be granted simply by boarding a plane out of San Juan.
“The whole key here is to straighten out that unequal citizenship system,” Cortes said.
He said he’s talking to state Democratic state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez about sponsoring a similar measure in the Florida Senate.
“This is something different, innovative,” Cortes said. “This is not something people are aware of. People will say, ‘he’s advocating for statehood for Puerto Rico.’ Yeah, I’m probably advocating for statehood. That should be a decision of the people. But before you get there, certain things need to be done. This is not a direct call for statehood.”
Two weeks ago Cortes and fellow state Reps. Rene Plasencia of Orlando, and David Santiago of Deltona traveled to Puerto Rico to meet with government officials to foster closer ties between the state of Florida and the commonwealth. However, Cortes said that while he gathered information during that trip, his determination to pursue this measure predated that visit.