How long is too long?

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory for 125 years. During that time, our fellow U.S. citizens on the island — currently 3.2 million — have remained disenfranchised and unfairly treated as second-class citizens.

Unless Congress ends Puerto Rico’s territory status, Puerto Ricans’ only option for full rights and democracy is to move stateside. Everyday island residents struggle with the thought of feeling pushed to leave to pursue full rights and greater opportunities, or choose to stay with their friends, families and the communities they love while being subjected to continued territorial inequality and discrimination.

Fortunately, there has recently been a significant step towards addressing Puerto Rico’s status in Congress — the introduction of the Puerto Rico Status Act. This bill offers a definitive choice for Puerto Rico’s voters to achieve full democracy through either statehood or independence with or without free association. This legislation should be supported by every senator to advance equality for all Americans.

Puerto Ricans have already spoken up at the polls demanding change. Over the last decade, voters on the island have rejected the current territory status and chosen statehood as their preferred non-territory option three times (2012, 2017, 2020). While lawmakers in Congress have been slow to respond with meaningful action, efforts made last year and this year demonstrate that momentum is building for America to finally reckon with the need to end its colonial relationship with Puerto Rico.

This momentum is possible because both a majority of all Americans and a majority of Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. mainland, support statehood for Puerto Rico.

On Nov. 6, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) introduced the Puerto Rico Status Act to resolve the inequality affecting American citizens in Puerto Rico stemming from its territorial status. This Senate legislation is meaningful because it builds on the House version that passed the 117th Congress and again commits the federal government to honor and implement the choice of Puerto Rico’s voters in a federally sponsored plebiscite between statehood, independence or independence in free association.

The lack of full equality under federal laws and voting representation at the federal level for the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico due to territorial status has drastic consequences and is unsustainable. Glaring examples include federal neglect of essential needs, such as the unjust Medicaid caps in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which have created health care funding shortfalls for the island’s most vulnerable, and President Trump’s inadequate disaster relief after Hurricane Maria.

As a result, more and more people leave the island to move stateside every day, which is why Puerto Rican Americans have become the second largest demographic of Hispanic Americans in the continental U.S., with a population of nearly 6 million. This should also serve as a big motivating force for members of Congress because Puerto Rican voters have an important electoral voice in states and swing districts throughout the U.S., such as New York (990,217 people), Georgia (121,435), North Carolina (126,521), Pennsylvania (493,832) and Florida (1,239,809).

With congressional balance on a razor’s edge, and an Electoral College that could be decided by a few thousand votes in a handful of swing states, Puerto Rican voters are poised to play a leading role in 2024.

To be clear, our fellow U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are doing all that they can to overcome the structural barriers created by territorial status, making amazing economic strides over the past few years. I’m proud of the thousands of Puerto Ricans who continued to push down unemployment rates and restructured the territory’s outstanding debt to pay it off, leading to the economy of the island growing by 4 percent in 2022. These are significant achievements that change the economic prospects of the island.

But for this significant progress to continue and solidify further into sustainable economic growth, Congress must resolve Puerto Rico’s status issue. When that happens, I’m certain a majority will choose statehood as the best solution.

One hundred twenty-five years of territory status is too long. All Americans should urge their senators to join Heinrich in upholding America’s founding values of government by consent of the governed, by becoming co-sponsors for the Puerto Rico Status Act.

Congress can and must take action to right a historic wrong of American colonialism. Now it has a bill to do so. If it passes, it will help make America “a more perfect union.”

George H. Laws Garcia, a former acting director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, is executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council — PR51st.

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