Christopher Columbus is credited with the European discovery of Puerto Rico in 1493. He originally gave the island the name of San Juan Bautista but finding gold in the local river quickly changed the name to “Rich Port,” which is the direct translation for the current U.S. territory. The capital would then take on the name San Juan as a reflection of its history. It would become a Spanish colony and a critical military outpost in the years to come.
During the first decades of settlement, Puerto Rico would become a significant agricultural resource for Spain, producing sugar cane, tobacco, coffee, and livestock. Local plantation owners began to import slaves from Africa, which would create a mixing of the indigenous races with African and Spanish genetic lines. Many of the island’s towns still retain their Taino names.
Numerous countries tried to conquer the island because of the wealth it offered, including the French, English, and the Dutch. It would remain in Spain’s hands until the Spanish-American War concluded with the Treaty of Paris ceding the island, along with Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines, to the United States.
Puerto Ricans received U.S. citizenship in 1917, and then the island became a commonwealth in 1952. Now there are calls to make it a full state, especially after the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria.
List of the Pros of Puerto Rico Statehood
1. Statehood would eliminate the legal inequalities that exist.
Puerto Rico is not currently eligible for the food stamp program that exists for disaster victims in the United States because it is not an official state. Even though no one can explain why their presence is excluded from the program, this issue would disappear if granted statehood. There would be improvements in family tax credits, Medicaid enrollment, Medicare access, and several other federal programs that do not currently apply because of its classification as a commonwealth.
2. Statehood would offer Puerto Rico a stronger economic position.
Puerto Rico became a tourism and manufacturing dynasty at the conclusion of Operation Bootstrap, with American companies flooding the island with new opportunities thanks to cheaper labor and attractive tax laws. It is a leading tourism destination that doesn’t require U.S. citizens to travel with a passport, serves as a manufacturing center for pharmaceuticals and high-tech equipment, and still provides agricultural opportunities as well. Statehood would help to modernize the economy instead of being forced to rely on the tax loopholes that currently exist because of its status.
3. Statehood would provide Puerto Rick with full electoral representation.
Because Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and not a full state, it does not receive full electoral representation in Congress. There are no senators elected by the population. The only representative is considered a delegate with the title of Resident Commissioner. That limits their voting privileges when legislation comes through, holding less representative power than what other U.S. citizens in the 50 states receive.
Statehood would provide the island with full representation for every vote. That means the U.S. citizens living on the island could finally have a vote on the laws which affect their island.
4. Statehood would allow citizens to vote in all elections.
Because Puerto Rico is currently a commonwealth, its status as a territory does not allow citizens to vote in the same number of elections when compared to households in the 50 states. The island can only vote in presidential primaries, for their governor, and for a Resident Commissioner whom they send to Congress more as an observer than an elected vote provider. Statehood would allow this population to vote in the final presidential election every four years, hold elections for two senators, and then have representatives that could actually vote on legislation. They would finally have full participation in the democratic processes of the country.
5. Statehood would bring increased prosperity and power for the entire country.
Although the reasons why territories were eventually turned into states are numerous, each one of the 50 has something in common with every other one. When a state joins the union, they bring an increase in prosperity and power to everyone else. The benefits of this island achieving full statehood would help to resolve the financial crisis that began in 2006, reduce barriers to entry for businesses, and create a new hub of opportunities in the general Caribbean region since the island is currently the most populous colony in the world today.
6. Statehood is a reflection of what the population wants.
There have been a series of referendums held in Puerto Rico over the years asking if the people want statehood granted to them. The vast majority of the results have been positive. The last significant vote occurred in 2017, with 97% of voters saying that they wanted to join the United States. Since the 2016 election, the island’s delegate has introduced two bills that would allow Puerto Rico to become the 51st state in the republic. The latest effort had 53 co-sponsors on it, asking that a task force be started immediately to allow entry into the union in 2021.
7. Statehood would change how Puerto Rico could enter the global trade market.
As it stands now, the only way that Puerto Rico can enter into global trade venues is to work with their financial oversight board in Congress or to develop relationships on their own. If they were granted statehood, then the island could immediately use the various trade agreements, alliances, and treaties to stimulate their economy. The influx of new money could help to pay down some of the territory’s debt, provide more employment opportunities, and start lifting families out of poverty.
List of the Cons of Puerto Rico Statehood
1. Statehood would change the shape of U.S. politics nationally.
If Puerto Rico were to be granted statehood, then it would change the overall structure of Congress. Each state is constitutionally required to receive two seats in the Senate, regardless of how many people live within its borders. That means there would be 102 senators instead of 100, with the Democratic Party favored to win both seats. More than twice as many Democrats vote in primaries on the island than Republicans.
The island would also receive 5 seats in the House of Representatives under the current priority format, which means Washington State, Minnesota, California, Texas, and Florida would each lose one of theirs since a maximum of 435 seats is permitted.
2. Statehood would change the number of electoral votes needed for a presidential election.
The current threshold for the Electoral College in the United States is 270, which means a candidate wins when they receive 271 committed votes. With Puerto Rico joining the country would give them 7 electoral votes under the scenario described above, which means the Democratic party would gain a net 4 votes in a projected election. Although that wouldn’t be enough to sway most elections, it could change the way that all candidates campaign for office.
3. Statehood wouldn’t change the voting patterns of the island.
Even though the 2017 referendum on statehood for Puerto Rico produced a massive majority, less than 25% of the registered voters on the island actually came out to vote. Part of the identity of this territory is deeply rooted in the question as to whether or not they should become a state. There are several political groups for it, some who are against it, and a minority of voters want the island to form a new nation instead.
There are small amounts of autonomy granted to Puerto Rick from Congress, allowing it to exist as a “quasi-state” under the current setup. The local government is independently elected. They simply lack the power and benefits of being a state.
4. Statehood would mean the citizens would start paying federal taxes.
One of the issues that sometimes holds Puerto Rico back from the idea of statehood is the fact that any resident who lives on the island does not pay a federal income tax to the U.S. government. Workers are responsible for payroll taxes to help fund Medicare and Social Security. There is only limited funding for food stamps, Medicaid, and other benefits that most Americans take for granted.
The sales and use tax rate in the territory is 10.5%, but Puerto Rico’s income tax is only 4%. There are no taxes on dividends either or are there any capital gain taxes to worry about when living on the island. Shifting to statehood would likely change this format, which could limit future business opportunities.
5. Statehood would lose the island’s place as a colony for international competition.
Puerto Rico currently participates in the Olympic Games as an independent nation. Other competitions, such as the Miss Universe Pageant, give the island a similar status. If the U.S. were to convert this territory into a state, then all of its competitors would be forced to compete under the Stars and Stripes instead of their own flag. There are Puerto Ricans who have medaled for the U.S. in the Olympics in the past, but statehood would remove the choice of self-representation for good.
6. Statehood would emphasize English as an official language.
There is nothing in the Constitution which says a state must set English as their official language. Puerto Rico would likely make it and Spanish co-equal languages after receiving statehood. What we know from history is that non-English states like New Mexico and Louisiana transformed over time from their native language being the primary one to becoming secondary. Even New Mexico has a 53% majority for English. This transition could change the culture of the island in untold ways.
English is currently taught as a mandatory subject in the school districts of Puerto Rico, but it is as an English as a Second Language (ESL) class. Most students receive one period of instruction per day, which would create an initial language barrier for communication with the other states.
7. Statehood would change the statistics on crime and poverty in the United States.
Cynics and critics agree that one of the primary reasons why statehood might be opposed by the United States is that Puerto Rico would immediately have the highest levels of poverty and crime in the country if it became the 51st state. With its current status as a territory, the official data figures do not always include the reports that come from the island. This issue could shift financial resources from other states to begin addressing this issue. Although the citizens on the island would benefit, it would likely be at the expense of the other taxpayers.
8. Statehood would make the U.S. responsible for the island’s debt.
The favorable tax laws in Puerto Rico have not done much to solve a financial crisis that is well into its second decade of problems. Even though there has never been a requirement for a territory to be solvent when entering into the republic, the amount of debt that the territory has is quite extensive. States have powers and responsibilities of their own, but with $74 billion in defaulted debt and $49 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, the credit status is questionable.
Three major credit agencies downgraded several bonds issued by Puerto Rico to junk status after the government demonstrated it could not pay the debt in 2014. This action prevented more bonds from being sold on the open market. This credit issue could apply to the U.S. government with statehood.
9. Statehood wouldn’t change past military real estate transactions.
The Department of the Navy began to search for the location of a new naval base during the 1940s. During this decade, over 22,000 acres on the island of Vieques were eventually purchased from local landowners to develop this space, representing two-thirds of the island. The western end was used as an ammunition depot until the land was returned in 2001. Because the area was used for live-fire training exercises, there are numerous contaminants present that make it unusable even though it has been almost 20 years since it was last used.
In 1999, the U.S. Navy even fired depleted uranium bullets on the site. The USS Killen served as a target ship for wreckage during the atomic tests during Operation Hardtack I. Additional radiation tests occurred in the 1960s too. All of these issues will continue to impact the territory even under statehood.
10. Statehood could lead to a loss of culture.
There are many on the island who are concerned that becoming a state would require them to lose their heritage. It would definitely stop the conversation of eventually becoming an independent country. Even though there are not complete U.S. rights for these citizens, they still receive more privileges than other territories under the supervision and control of the federal government. Some residents believe that maintaining the status quo of independence is off the table is the best option because it would allow them to operate with some continuity without losing their identity in the process.
11. Statehood could result in a loss of tourism money.
Part of the reason why Puerto Rico is a prime tourism destination for Americans is the fact that costs are lower than other tropical destinations. If statehood were granted, then the economic conditions would improve over time to negate that advantage. Visiting the island state would be similar to the experience of traveling to Hawaii for many families. Even though the beaches might still seem exotic, there would be a loss of its rustic appeal that would make a holiday here less affordable than ever.
A Final Thought About Puerto Rico’s Statehood
The tradition of the United States Congress has been to grant Puerto Rico its statehood if that is what the people want. Life on the island is nuanced, with the shifting politics of representation never really certain. Even in the most recent overwhelming referendum, the voter turnout rates were hardly indicative of a desire to become a U.S. state. One might even argue that the lack of a turnout was just as much a statement about not becoming a state as was the 97% of voters who said this was the right course to take.
The pros and cons of Puerto Rico’s statehood show many benefits to the U.S. as a whole, but it may not be in the best interests of some residents. That is why even President Obama said that having statehood was something he would support if the island would too. President Trump had a different answer after these votes: “Puerto Rico shouldn’t be thinking about statehood right now,” he tweeted.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.