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Jaime Fortuño Headshot

Will Congress Tell Puerto Rico 'Sorry, You're Still 2nd Class US Citizens' Yet Again?

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I can't believe it, but I long for the days of smoke filled rooms of the pre-television Congress. I was not alive then, but there must have been something in the gray air that made politicians actually vote on decisions. Kind of like the air in Avatar's Pandora, perhaps they fed on this affected atmosphere to get the inspiration to say either yeas or nays. Sorry for the desperate longing of less democratic processes, but my island has a 112-year old adolescence that it must desperately grow out of and only Congress holds the key.

Right now Congress has before it project 2499, which in its essence intends to give Puerto Rico an official process to determine its status. Since 1952, the four million U.S. citizens that live in this tropical island have not had the parental blessing of the Congress that rules it to decide whether they want to continue being a colony, finally achieve statehood, or become independent. Perhaps you didn't know that in the second decade of the 21st century, the United States is still holding some of its citizens under colonial rule and without the option of full citizenship rights. Puerto Rico is the last sizable US colony, all other being minor outlying islands with small populations, that remains under Congressional rule. It operates with limited self-government provisions. Our island became a colony as a memento of the US victory over Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American War.

The consequences of this elongated adolescence have brought with it the poorest jurisdiction in the United States, decades of economic migration to the continent (there are more US citizens of Puerto Rican descent living in the 50 states than are left on the island), and society with great yet unrealized aspirations. The island is neck deep in its indecision on its status. Issues as benign as the location of a wind energy farm are stained by the local politicians' petty fight over what it means in their power struggled masquerading as their defense of their own version of the way out of the status purgatory that we are living in. Congress can't leave the island to define its relationship with the US by itself. This absent parent approach has not worked. Without Washington, the local bickering over status will continue into the next century.

Don't confuse this rant with ungratefulness. Puerto Rico is a beacon of democracy and relative financial stability in a region filled with a history of dictators with single names such as Fidel, Chavez, Papa Doc, Batista, and Trujillo. First name basis, as if they were soccer stars, their talents more focused on corruption, violence, and oppression than foot speed or ball handling. Except for France's equivalent to states in the Caribbean (Martinique and Guadalupe), Puerto Rico still enjoys the best standard of living in the archipelago. Being a colony of the United States has changed the lives of five generations and granted them a shot at democracy and an abridged version of the American Dream. But after 112 years of playing in the minor leagues, don't we deserve our shot at the big leagues?

Puerto Rico is not looking for a handout in this. Our sons and daughters have made their mark on the US honor roll. I invite you to find a state that has earned more Purple Hearts per capita in combat than our island. Al Pacino said it in Scent of a Woman, "Puerto Ricans make the best soldiers." Our people are never afraid to defend the red, white, and blue. We have also made our way into sports with figures of the stature of Roberto Clemente, Gigi Fernandez, and Ivan Rodriguez. We have also entertained audiences with the talents of the likes of Benicio del Toro, Rita Moreno, and Lin Manuel Marin. You can find us running pharmaceutical firms, banks, and non-profits in the island and on the mainland. Even the roles of NASA are full of engineers trained in Puerto Rico's top universities. I, as a humble coffee grower and exporter, am glad to bring back to the trophy case the recognition of producing one of the top coffees in the world. Look anywhere, and the will and ambition of the Puerto Ricans gives fruit to our great nation. If you are not convinced yet, I offer you two words: Sonia Sotomayor.

You can look the other way. Just ask the Native American tribes and their long struggle for equality. Many of your ancestors may have just looked the other way when inequality was seen as acceptable. If you do, I advise you not to move to Puerto Rico. If you move here, you will lose your right to vote for the President even when you can vote in the primaries. You will have no voting member in Congress yet you will be available for a military draft if such need were to arise and you would have no say in the laws that applied to your daily life. You would pay full Medicare payroll taxes but your benefits would be capped at 30% of the national average. The climax of this absurd inequality was reached recently when the new health care law was being debated in Congress. Up to the last minute, coverage for immigrants seemed to fare better than for the Medicare payroll tax paying US citizens in the island of Puerto Rico. With no voting Congress representatives, the island was threatened to be excluded (we were finally appeased with an increase in benefits but not equality) despite our full tax contribution to the program. You start to see the picture. By the way, this second-class citizenship status is not by birth but by residence. You move to Puerto Rico and you will lose your rights, even if you were born in Kentucky (as I was during my father's military service).

You could take the high road and support us in getting a decision from Congress. This is not a Republican or a Democrat issue or bill. Both Bush and Obama have publicly expressed their support for self-determination. It is Congress that must act and do so now. I learned about the status issue as a six year old. I am now in my 40s and have witnessed what this oversight has done to millions of people. We need a decision and need it now. What do I tell my children if not? The Bill of Rights does not apply to you? I am a statehooder and have been since I was six. It is the sensible decision. I respect the small pro-independence movement and their right to a voice. I must also respect the will of the colonialists who worship the status quo even when everything around us is corroding because of it. All three points of view deserve their day in the sunlight. Let democracy rule. Madame Pelosi, the time for action from your part is now. Don't condemn another generation of our children this limbo. Can I hear a unanimous yea in the roll call on 2499?