Filed by Rep. Jennifer González-Colón (R), Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner and non-voting representative in Congress, the bill lays out a plan to enable the territory to become a state by January 2021.
“This is the first step to open a serious discussion to determine the ultimate political status of Puerto Rico,” González said, per NBC News. “To sum everything up, this is about equality.”
The move has been described as Puerto Rico’s “biggest push for statehood” in many years. Fourteen Democrats and 20 Republicans have backed the bill thus far; however, it remains unclear what odds the legislation has of passing.
Several lawmakers supporting the bill said the federal government’s response to Puerto Rico’s devastation following Hurricane Maria highlighted the territory’s need for statehood.
“The hard truth is that Puerto Rico’s lack of political power allows Washington to treat Puerto Rico like an afterthought, as the federal government’s inadequate preparation for and response to Hurricane Maria made crystal clear,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) told NBC News.
Nine months after the hurricane first hit the region, “millions in federal dollars for [post-Maria] reconstruction have yet to be allocated,” The Washington Post reported on Wednesday.
To this day, thousands of Puerto Rican residents remain without power.
Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898 when it was acquired following the Spanish-American War. Although Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they can’t vote in presidential elections and don’t have a congressional representative with full voting powers.
González said her new bill calls for the creation of a bipartisan, nine-member task force to look into what measures need to be changed to allow Puerto Rico to be incorporated as a state.
“No longer do we want ambiguity. No longer do we want this kicked down the road,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who’s fiercely advocated for statehood in the past, said at a press conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday. “In Congress, you’re either with us or you’re against the people of Puerto Rico.”
Puerto Ricans have been divided on the issue of statehood for decades. In the last referendum on the issue, 97 percent of those who voted supported statehood. According to NBC News, the opposition party boycotted the plebiscite, and only 23 percent of registered voters ended up casting ballots.