Make Puerto Rico a State

As Barack Obama makes the first presidential visit to Puerto Rico in half a century, let’s cut to the chase: this island will be the 51st state, and the sooner the better.

Fifty is a nice round number for states, but prepare to kiss it goodbye. Puerto Rico will be 51st, and not necessarily the last. Alberta and British Columbia may join the United States someday; U.S. states named Sonora and Baja California are not out of the question. There will be more stars on the flag.

The United States has always been about the open door: arrivals make the country stronger. The boundaries of our great nation have always been in flux: until 1912, it was far from clear that Arizona belonged.

The time has come for those boundaries to change again. So let’s imagine what will happen after the island becomes a state:

A backward, feudal economy will begin to hum. Poverty will decline. Low education levels will be replaced education levels about the same as the U.S. average. Glistening office towers and condos will rise. Mainlander suspicion of the island’s residents will fade. Eventually one of the island’s sons or daughters will be elected president.

Wait — I’m describing Hawaii!

Peruse the history of Hawaii prior to its 1959 statehood, and you’ll think you are reading about Puerto Rico today. Hawaii then had an obsolete economic base and poor schools; its residents were viewed by the mainland as foreigners. Today Hawaii’s per-capita GDP, $49,000, exceeds the number for the mainland, and the very name Hawaii evokes a sense of paradise.

Once Puerto Rico becomes a state, its fortunes could arc upward. Right now the island’s murky status as a semi-autonomous “unincorporated territory” holds Puerto Rico back in economic development, and in global standing. Admit Puerto Rico into statehood and positive change will begin.

Some residents of Puerto Rico oppose statehood, advocating sovereignty. Some Walloons want independence from Belgium, some in Newfoundland want to return to being a British dominion — you can’t please everybody. Puerto Ricans who favor independence are a minority: many oppose an independence-or-statehood referendum, because they know their position will lose. (Details of possible referenda are in this recent White House report, which all but endorses Puerto Rican statehood — President Gerald Ford endorsed Puerto Rican statehood, and the elder President George Bush all but endorsed the idea.)

Here are important points for understanding the Puerto Rico issue:

* Since 1941, everyone born on the island has entered the world as a U.S. citizen. When commentators declared that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor had “emigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico,” they betrayed a common misunderstanding of the island’s confusing status. (Setting aside that Sotomayor was born in New York.) Average-height J.J. Barea of the Dallas Mavericks, improbable star of the NBA Finals, grew up in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. He didn’t “become an American,” as some sportscasters said. He was born an American.

* It’s not true that Puerto Ricans pay no federal taxes. Residents of the island do not pay federal income taxes. But then, since the three federal income tax cuts of the last decade (two under the younger President Bush, one under Obama), 45 percent of mainland Americans don’t pay federal income taxes, either. Puerto Ricans pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, which fund their federal retirement and health care benefits. (To the extent these benefits are funded, but that’s a separate question.) Statehood for Puerto Rico would cause its residents to pay federal income taxes.

* Companies doing business in Puerto Rico are nearly exempt from federal corporate taxes. Statehood would cause companies there to pay corporate taxes.

* Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections — they can vote in presidential primaries, which are run by the parties — and have no senators or true members of the House of Representatives. If Puerto Rico became a state its residents would vote for president and command approximately the same number of electors as Oregon. The new state would have two senators and four to five representatives. Membership of the Senate would rise to 102, while the four to five representatives for Puerto Rico would reduce representation of the other states by the same number.

There’s no doubt Puerto Rican statehood would aid the Democratic Party, which may explain White House interest. (Democrats would benefit in the current generation: for all we know, by mid-century, Puerto Rico will be a Tea Party stronghold.) Two more Senate seats would be huge for the Democrats.

Nearly a million Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida, which has replaced New York City as home-away-from-home for those of Puerto Rican origin. “I know a boat you can get on” is now being grumbled by Floridians, not New Yorkers. Granting the vote to Puerto Ricans living in New York wouldn’t have short-term impact on presidential politics, since New York already votes blue. But with Florida a battleground state, enfranchising nearly a million additional people there, most of whom will vote Democratic, could determine a presidency.

* The Census Bureau projects that by 2050, the Hispanic (using that term loosely) share of the U.S. population will rise to 24 percent from 12 percent. Statehood for Puerto Rico could accelerate the rise of Spanish-speaking and Spanish-descended Americans.

So how about the legislation that grants Puerto Rican its statehood including a clause that makes English the language of the United States, and bars official bilingualism? (Some states mandate English; there is no controlling federal law.) The melting-pot aspect of English has benefitted all Americans, including first-generation Americans: while the track record of official bilingualism in other nations is poor.

If the United States is to welcome Puerto Rico as a state, fully embracing its residents, English as the U.S. language should be part of the deal. That’s a future-oriented compromise with something for everybody.

[Cross-posted at Reuters.com]

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and the Atlantic. He's also a columnist for ESPN.com.