What to know about the Puerto Rico Status Act
The changes to expect if the Puerto Rico Status Act becomes law.
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On Thursday, Dec. 15, the House took the elusive Puerto Rico Status Act to a vote after successfully surviving a grueling debate, and it’s now making its way to the Senate, where critics and supporters agree it will sink.
The final tally was 233-to-191, with 16 Republicans breaking ranks and joining Democrats to back the measure.
The legislation, authored by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, authorizes a binding plebiscite where Puerto Ricans can vote for statehood, independence, or independence with free association.
Puerto Ricans have participated in multiple plebiscites — voting for statehood on three occasions — but all have been non-binding since Congress would need to authorize any changes to the island’s territorial status.
Though it is expected to fail in the Senate without adequate Republican support, statehood activists are celebrating a milestone in getting sufficient consensus in the House, signaling viability for future Congresses.
Conversely, progressive Puerto Rican groups, like Power4PuertoRico, expressed disappointment in the bill’s failure to address “key details over the language, economic, and cultural information necessary for Puerto Ricans to make a final decision over their future.”
HB 8393 does not clarify whether schools will continue to operate in Spanish, pursuant to Census data or if districts are expected to adopt English as the primary language of instruction.
It also does not include language regarding the infamous Jones Act, which prevents Puerto Rican trade with other countries, and limits maritime commerce to go through highly expensive U.S ships.
Power4PuertoRico, additionally, lobbied for clarity surrounding citizenship requirements if the ‘Sovereign with free association’ selection was chosen.
Here’s what to know about the plebiscite, everything from how it would work, what agencies it would intervene, and who’s paying for it.
How would the plebiscite work?
House Bill 8393 will convene a plebiscite dated Nov. 5, 2023, an off-year, to “enable the eligible voters of Puerto Rico to choose a permanent, non-territorial, fully self-governing political status.”
There were some disagreements in the House about what constituted an appropriate majority, and it seems as though the language landed on 50% as constituting a majority vote, as opposed to a previously negotiated 55%.
HB 8393 calls for voter education campaigns, which will become indispensable ahead of the vote, as the bill includes a heft of reform concerning federal institutions in Puerto Rico.
The elections commission on the island tasked with overseeing the plebiscite will answer to the U.S. Attorney’s office, a first in Puerto Rico plebiscite history, who, within 45 days, will approve the education campaign and ballot design.
If the Attorney General does not provide an answer within that time frame, the materials provided to them will be considered approved.
There will be three choices on the ballot: Independence, Statehood, and Sovereignty in Free Association, all of which trigger a transition of the island’s political operations, which include a rewrite of the Constitution, approved by the electorate and the U.S. President, applicable to the three outcomes.
What would independence look like?
After the Constitution is rewritten and approved, Puerto Ricans will elect new leaders “not one year later” than the establishment of the new Constitution, in a process designed by the Puerto Rican Government.
A pressing officer will be appointed to supervise the constitutional transformation that the island will inevitably undergo.
A ‘Joint Transition Commission’ will oversee the transfer of Federal functions — including taxation, health care, housing, transportation, education, and entitlement programs in Puerto Rico — and recommend to Congress how to carry out that order.
Then, the sitting U.S. President will proclaim Puerto Rico an independent nation. A presiding officer overseeing the constitutional change will then dictate the date on which the new Government shall take office.
There will be a transfer of judicial power that delegates pending proceedings to Puerto Rico courts, and the “judicial power of the U.S. shall no longer extend to Puerto Rico.”
Both the ceremonial proclamation and rewriting of the Constitution are applicable to all three selections, with very few exceptions.
What happens to Puerto Ricans residing in the U.S.?
The question of citizenship becomes latent and complex.
First, Puerto Rico will determine its immigration laws and assign citizenship status to individuals born on the island, dependent, of course, on the kinds of laws it issues concerning residency requirements.
Those hypothetical new laws will not affect Puerto Ricans' citizenship status in the U.S. and will not “serve as the basis of loss, or relinquishment of United States citizenship,” the provision reads.
Work visas would be issued for Puerto Ricans born on or after the “effective date” of independence and those who lived in Puerto Rico for no less than five years.
But the question of whether Puerto Ricans in the U.S. will enjoy dual citizenship remains largely unanswered since it would not be within Congress’ purview.
However, after the effective date of independence, the child of one parent who resides in the U.S. would not constitute citizenship.
Will Puerto Ricans lose federal benefits?
Puerto Ricans who derive disability, retirement, or survivor’s insurance would not see their benefits interrupted until said benefits expire in accordance with applicable laws.
Those affairs would be handled by the newly-installed Government of Puerto Rico after achieving independent status.
As for Social Security, the central fund would be transferred to the Puerto Rican government to continue disbursement of earned federal benefits throughout its expiry date, and according to HB 8393, the funds are to be used for the expressed purpose of the Social Security benefit payout.
The same applies for sovereignty.
Will Sovereign with Free Association follow the same ground rules as a Commonwealth?
No. Besides the ceremonial proclamation, a Bilateral Negotiating commission will be established to create the ‘Articles of Free Association,’ made up of five members, which will oversee the “transfer of functions” between the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Under Sovereignty, those born in Puerto Rico will need to undergo the U.S.’s harsh immigration process if they seek to enter the country.
During the transition period, if a Puerto Rican-born person has at least one parent in the U.S., they will also be considered a U.S. citizen.
What about Statehood?
Puerto Rico’s incorporation into the Union would mirror the proclamation, followed by an “admission into the Union,” making the island the 51st state of the U.S.
A review into federal law would similarly be conducted, but not by a joint commission, and the sitting president would issue recommendations to Congress for changes.
The U.S. would become the explicit owner of all Puerto Rico property, soil, maritime or otherwise.
The constitution would be reworked to adhere to be “republican in form,” subject to presidential approval.
Will Puerto Rico have representation in Congress under Statehood?
Yes. After the ceremonial proclamation concludes, the office of the Resident Commissioner would be eliminated, and dates for primary end general elections would be enacted in accordance with federal requirements.
Puerto Rico will be represented by two Senators, duly elected, and neither can occupy both offices.
As for Representatives, until a Census-based reapportionment cycle takes place, new elected officials would not be immediately elected.
Congressional districts would be stipulated based on the results of the Census and reapportionment cycle.
What happens to Puerto Rico’s national debt?
The Federal Oversight and Management Board installed by former President Barack Obama via PROMESA would be dissolved, and the debt is then transferred to Puerto Rico.