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Oldest US Latino civil rights group backs Puerto Rico statehood

Rafael Bernal

The Hill

Mar 14, 2022

The country's oldest civil rights organization will announce its support for Puerto Rico statehood on Monday, breathing new life into the debate over the most populous U.S. territory's sovereign status.

The decision by the League of United Latino American Citizens (LULAC), a national organization, to take an affirmative stance on the issue marks a break from a historical trend where the status issue was seen as out of bounds to groups off the island.

"The moment is now," said Sindy Benavides, CEO of LULAC.

"We see continuously how our Puerto Rican community is treated as second class citizens — the fact that there are over 235,000 men and women who have served honorably in the military, who have lost their lives, and yet they cannot vote for the president of the United States, it's a double standard," she added.

The issue of Puerto Rico's political status is increasingly seen as a civil rights issue, as more than 3 million U.S. citizens are afforded partial political rights because they reside in a territory.

That civil rights perspective has come into sharper focus in the wake of the island's latest status referendum, where a majority of voters chose statehood.

"Puerto Ricans on the island voted for statehood in the general election with a simple ballot, so it now becomes a civil rights issue," said Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) the first Florida representative of Puerto Rican descent.

"And that is LULAC's main role among the Hispanic community, upholding the civil rights of Latinos across the nation," added Soto, who introduced a statehood bill in Congress along with Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-P.R.).

In the latest plebiscite — there have been three such votes since 2012, all won by statehood — Puerto Ricans voted on a yes/no question on statehood, with 52 percent of voters choosing statehood.

Supporters of statehood note that more Puerto Ricans voted for statehood than for any individual candidate in 2020; opponents say the plebiscite was nonbinding.

The status debate has been at the core of Puerto Rican politics since at least the 1950s, when the territory's current constitution was adopted and the foundations were laid for a two-party system, with a centrist party that supported statehood and a left-leaning party that favored maintaining the island's territorial status.

A third option, independence, was favored by a vocal minority that's still active today.

Support for territorial status has dwindled in large part because of a series of Supreme Court decisions that made clear that U.S. possessions — with the exception of the District of Columbia — are either territories or states, without any hybrid status allowed under the Constitution.

"For years there has been an effort to say that there could be another status. It's just not backed up by either Congress giving it any support or the Constitution," said John Trasviña, a former dean at the University of San Francisco School of Law.

"The options for Puerto Ricans are either statehood or independence. Looking for something permanent, the Puerto Rican voters have consistently said most recently, 'We want statehood,'" Trasviña added.

Trasviña in January signed on to a letter with three other California political leaders — former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D), former Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D) and voting rights advocate Ben Monterroso — asking Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to support the Senate companion for Soto and González's statehood bill.

Another influential Hispanic politician, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), called on his state's House delegation to support the Soto-González statehood bill in a separate January letter.

"I have been a tireless advocate of voting rights and human rights and have fought all my life for others to be heard, seen, and counted," wrote Richardson, who also served as ambassador to the United Nations and Energy secretary in the Clinton administration.

"As a Latino leader, I can no longer in good faith keep quiet while we all have access here on the mainland to the full rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship, and 3 million of our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters are denied these same rights. It is not only an unsustainable and undemocratic situation, but also an immoral one," added Richardson.

The outpouring of support from top Latino voices stateside comes as Hispanic communities grapple with issues of demographic growth, representation and unity.

Monterroso, a senior adviser at Poder Latinx, said Hispanic communities should take an active interest in promoting and sustaining the rights of other Latino groups.

"The era where we allow ourselves to be separated is gone," said Monterroso.

"I use [Supreme Court Justice Sonia] Sotomayor as an example. I mean, I don't know and I don't care if she's not Guatemalan or Mexicana, she's Latina and I'm proud of it, and I own her, celebrate her," said Monterroso.

Sotomayor, the first Hispanic to ever serve on the Supreme Court, was born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents.

Unlike Sotomayor's tenure on the court — an issue of unity for Hispanics throughout the United States — Puerto Rico's status debate has historically been fraught with divisiveness.

While there is broad agreement on the perils of territorial status — for instance, Congress could theoretically render Puerto Ricans stateless by simply passing a bill — taking a position on an issue that's divided generations of Puerto Ricans is a political risk.

Benavides said LULAC's decision to jump into the debate came from its own Puerto Rican affiliates.

"Who introduced the resolution was our LULAC committee on the island and the full assembly across the U.S. supported it, so it's coming directly from our Puerto Rican membership within LULAC," said Benavides.

Still, a vocal group of Puerto Ricans both on and off the island vehemently oppose statehood and have some support among progressive Latino groups on the mainland.

A protest organized by diaspora groups with support from CASA, a grassroots immigrant advocacy group, is planned for Tuesday outside the district office of House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

The anti-statehood protesters plan to call on Hoyer to support a competing status bill presented by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) that would create a commission to study the best status solution for Puerto Rico.

Hoyer has become a key player in the status debate, leading closed-doors negotiations between Soto and Velázquez to come up with a compromise between their separate proposals.

Bipartisan group of senators press Mayorkas on US readiness for... "I can't get into it other than that the majority leader is personally involved, so we may be able to work out a binding plebiscite that everybody can agree to," said Soto of the talks.

While the talks have been ongoing and the status debate can be divisive, Soto said the parts have found an important common ground.

"Our goal is to end the territorial status of Puerto Rico."