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Tennesseans should sympathize with Puerto Rico's push for statehood

Johnson City Press • Jun 2, 2018 at 8:15 AM

After a 120-year probationary period as a territory, it’s time to extend a hand to our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and welcome them as a state in this Union.

According to an independent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week, last year’s devastating Hurricane Maria killed more than 4,600 people in Puerto Rico, a number shockingly higher than the territorial government’s official standing figure of 64.

The Harvard researchers who conducted the study found that one-third of the deaths "were reported by household members as being caused by delayed or prevented access to medical care."

That’s 1,500 Americans who died because their health facilities had no power or supplies for months while federal agencies stumbled in providing disaster relief to them and while the nation’s chief executive criticized them on Twitter for not doing enough to help themselves.

Thousands of Americans in Puerto Rico are still without power, nine months after the storm crippled the ill-prepared island, tens of thousands of Americans’ homes were completely destroyed and hundreds of thousands of residents fled the island for the U.S. mainland, like refugees in their own country. As the crisis wears on, disease and suicide rates are on the rise and the already teetering economic situation threatens to fall into full financial meltdown.

We wouldn’t stand for such a paltry response to a natural disaster in Tennessee, and we shouldn’t stand for it in Puerto Rico.

Making Puerto Rico a full-fledged state won’t bring back the dead, and it won’t automatically reverse its economic troubles, but it will give 3.5 million of our citizens a say in how they’re governed, and it will finally welcome them into the exclusive club of the U.S.A.

Baffling results of a post-Maria poll reported nearly half of the country doesn’t know Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, a clear indictment of our educational system, but perhaps also a symptom of the message sent by the federal government’s perpetual sidelining of Puerto Ricans.

Presidents as far back as Gerald Ford have supported statehood for Puerto Rico, but members of Congress, who have the authority to admit new states, have spun their wheels. More than 100 bills have been introduced to resolve the territory’s status over the last three decades, but have gone nowhere.

Though Republicans’ 2016 winning platform “support(ed) the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state,” no effort has been made in the year-and-a-half since the GOP took control of the executive and legislative branches to allow them to realize that right.

If the new state of Puerto Rico were admitted, its people would be entitled to elect two senators and six representatives in the House. They would also get seven electoral votes for president. Republicans, shown to be keen on maintaining their majorities in the legislature and the presidency, may be wary of changing the formula now that they’ve won. Not to allow them off the hook, Democrats’ proposal for Puerto Rico’s statehood is vague and nonsensical.

The party’s platform two years ago proclaimed all American citizens should be able to vote for those who enact their laws — an option provided by the Constitution only to U.S. citizens residing in states admitted to the union — but the shaky platform said only that “the people of Puerto Rico should determine their ultimate political status from permanent options that do not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the United States.”

Puerto Ricans themselves seem cautiously open to the idea of joining. Referendums in 2012 and 2017, saw a majority of votes in favor of statehood. Opponents on the island of becoming a state, however, criticized the wording of the ballot measures, and disputed the results of the referendum after low voter turnout. Still, in January, for the second year in a row, Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rosselló sent a delegation of representatives to Washington to symbolically demand recognition as voting members of Congress. Not surprisingly, they were not successful.

The guerrilla attempt at representation has worked before, and was named after the state that first used it — the Tennessee Plan. In 1795, residents of what was then the Southwest Territory decided they’d waited long enough to become a state. They elected their own representatives and governor, ratified a constitution and presented themselves to Congress for inclusion in the Union. The following year, in a close vote, Congress chose to create the 16th state, Tennessee.

Let’s recognize and understand Puerto Rico’s need for statehood and bring them home.

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