REPUBLICAN leaders are about to do something so stupid and venal that maybe they don't deserve to retain control of Congress in this year's election. They want to make Puerto Rico the 51st state in the union, and next week, the House will vote on a measure to start the process. Why? Expect to hear plenty of platitudes about self-determination and full democracy for Puerto Rico's 3.7 million people. But what the Republicans are really interested in is the potential votes of some 25 million Hispanics on the U.S. mainland.
Only a fool or a desperate Republican could ever imagine that the average Mexican-American in East Los Angeles or Cuban American in Miami gives a hoot about statehood for Puerto Rico. But the hope that Puerto Rican statehood would entice more Hispanics into voting Republican is what's driving this monumentally bad idea that could cost billions in increased federal aid and permanently alter the culture of the United States.
Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898 after the United States won the Spanish American War. Everyone born on the xTC island is a U.S. citizen by birth, and all males are subject to the draft. The island is considered a "commonwealth," with its own elected government and laws, subject to the U.S. Constitution and federal court jurisdiction.
On the other hand, Puerto Ricans living on the island do not pay federal taxes, cannot vote in presidential elections and elect only a nonvoting member to the U.S. House of Representatives. All that would change if it gets statehood. The bill would allow Puerto Ricans to vote on whether they wish to become a state. A simple majority would be needed for such a referendum, making the island a state in 10 years.
So, what makes this such a bad idea? For starters, Puerto Rico is a linguistically and culturally autonomous island with a rich modern history that dates back nearly 100 years. Puerto Ricans don't consider themselves Americans even though they are U.S. citizens -- only 16 percent defined themselves as Americans in one recent poll. Fewer than 20 percent of Puerto Ricans speak English.
English vs. Spanish
And there is nothing Congress can do to force Puerto Ricans to learn English, even if Congress makes the acceptance of English a condition of statehood. As the current congressional delegate from Puerto Rico, Democratic Rep. Carlos Romero-Barcelo, told me a few months ago, once Puerto Rico became a state, the legislature would simply revoke English as its official language and put in place Spanish or both Spanish and English.
The likely outcome for the rest of the nation would be increased pressure to make the United States bilingual -- or at least those states with large Spanish-speaking populations, such as California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois. Hispanic activists have been promoting this agenda for years and already have succeeded in requiring Spanish-language instruction for some 2 million Hispanic youngsters in public schools and bilingual ballots in federal elections.
As worrisome as the cultural implications for Puerto Rican statehood are, however, the dismal economy on the island should be cause for even greater alarm.
In 1990, half of all Puerto Rican families earned less than $10,000 a year, 20 percent of Puerto Ricans were unemployed, and an additional 52 percent were out of the labor force altogether.
More than half the island's population already receives some form of public assistance, and 59 percent would qualify for the earned income tax credit once Puerto Rico became a state -- at an estimated cost to U.S. taxpayers of $18 billion in additional federal outlays.
As Mr. Romero-Barcelo, an avid statehood supporter, succinctly put it in his 1978 book, "Statehood Is for the Poor": "Puerto Rico's per capita contribution to the federal treasury, were we a state, would come to less than that of any other state in the union. At the same time, the per capita benefits we'd reap from federal aid programs would be greater than those of any other state in the union."
It is simply not in anyone's interest to grant statehood under these circumstances.
Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 2/26/98