Is Puerto Rico a U.S. State?

Puerto Rico is not a U.S. state — but it is a U.S. territory. This means that Puerto Rico is legally a part of the United States, residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. Citizens, and Puerto Rico could become a state with congressional approval. Indeed, of the 16 current U.S. territories, Puerto Rico seems most likely to eventually become a state.

Located approximately one thousand miles southeast of the contiguous U.S., the island of Puerto Rico is home to about 3.7 million Americans. It has a population larger than the rest of the territories combined, and has ratified a constitution that functions like a state constitution.

Some Puerto Ricans would prefer to forego statehood, primarily because becoming a state would mean giving up the possibility of becoming an independent country or Freely Associated State. Others view statehood more favorably, as statehood would grant Puerto Ricans full voting rights and provide Puerto Rico with representation in the U.S. Congress.

A 2020 non-binding referendum in Puerto Rico resulted in 52.3% of Puerto Ricans voting to become a United States. Again, this is a non-binding referendum and in order for Puerto Rico to actually become a state in the future, the US Congress would have to act.

Is Puerto Rico part of the United States?

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been part of the United States for over a century, although it is an unincorporated organized territory and not a US state.

In 1898, the United States battled the Spanish in the Spanish-American war. During this conflict, the United States invaded Puerto Rico, which at that time belonged to the Spanish Empire.

After the war ended, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States as part of the Treaty of Paris. The United States has maintained control of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory since it was acquired in 1898, and granted U.S. citizenship to its residents in 1917.

Administratively, Puerto Rico is classified as an unincorporated, organized territory of the United States. This means that Puerto Rico has its own local government, but is still required to abide by U.S. laws.

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Will Puerto Rico ever become a state?

Puerto Rico is the U.S. territory most likely to become a state. It is not only the most populated territory, but also the only territory to have ratified a constitution, which is one of the requirements for statehood.

To become a state, Puerto Rico needs approval by congress. Interestingly, the U.S. Constitution does not give explicit guidelines on the process of statehood. This means that congress has complete discretion to approve or deny a request by Puerto Rico to become a state.

However, we can look to the past for clarity on the process. U.S. territories have become states in the past, and the precedent set by those states suggests that Puerto Rico would need to do the following to gain statehood:

  1. Pass a referendum vote within the territory to ensure that the majority of Puerto Ricans want Puerto Rico to become a state.
    • If the majority approve, the territory can petition Congress for statehood.
    • Puerto Rico passed a referendum with majority support for statehood in 2017, but the extremely low voter turnout makes it hard to establish clear majority support.
  2. The territory would need to ratify a constitution — in the case of Puerto Rico, an appropriate constitution has already been ratified.
  3. Both houses of congress would need to pass a joint resolution to make Puerto Rico a state; this would be by a simple majority, rather than the two-thirds majority sometimes required in congressional votes.
  4. The President of the United States would have to sign the joint resolution into law.

As you can see, the process to become a state is lengthy and would require the approval of the President of the United States, the United States Senate, the United States House of Representatives, and the majority of Puerto Ricans themselves.

Where is Puerto Rico relative to the United States?

Located where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico is the easternmost island in the Greater Antilles. This puts Puerto Rico just east of Hispaniola, the island containing the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Cuba, Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands make up the rest of the Greater Antilles island chain.

Puerto Rico is about 1,000 miles from Miami, Florida, the closest major city in the continental United States. The flight from Miami to Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, takes about two and a half hours.

San Juan is fairly easy to reach by plane from other destinations, as the Luis Muñoz International Airport is the busiest airport in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico is also home to the busy Port of San Juan, which services container ships and cruise ships.

Due to Puerto Rico’s location within Hurricane Alley, it is susceptible to tropical storms and hurricanes. This has placed Puerto Rico in the news recently, after Category 5 Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017. Recovery from this hurricane has been slow, and has pushed the already cash-strapped island into further debt.

 Is Puerto Rico a country?

Although Puerto Rico has been governed under its own constitution since 1952, it is not a sovereign county. As a U.S. territory, it operates under U.S. sovereignty, meaning that the laws of the United States still apply within Puerto Rico.

Under U.S. sovereignty, Puerto Rico enjoys a number of benefits: the island is protected by the United States military, uses the United States Dollar as its currency, and receives additional funding from the United States. In this exchange, the U.S. gains territorial control and assesses limited taxes on island residents.

Puerto Rico’s international relations are controlled by the United States, although Puerto Rico can enter into relations with other countries as long as they obtain federal permission.

While Puerto Rico is not a country, it is possible for Puerto Rico to follow the same path as former U.S. territory the Philippines and become independent. Some Puerto Ricans support independence, as they consider themselves to be culturally and geographically distinct from the rest of the United States.

What is a U.S. territory?

A U.S. territory is an area owned by the United States and administered under the Federal government.

While U.S. territories are part of the United States, they differ from states in several important ways. Most importantly, states participate in running the federal government, while territories do not.

The United States currently posses 16 territories, which are located throughout the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Although the majority of these territories are small and unpopulated, five territories have permanent populations.

U.S. territory vs state

The United States governs under a system of federalism, in which some powers are given to the federal government and others are given to the individual states. Under this system, states give up some of their jurisdiction to the federal government, but they receive benefits in exchange.

One major benefit given to U.S. states is representation within the U.S. Federal Government. Each state elects two senators to represent their residents in the U.S. Senate, regardless of the state population size. Additionally, each state receives at least one representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, with the total number of representatives for each state being determined by the state population.

While U.S. territories like Puerto Rico also benefit from United States sovereignty, they do not receive all of the benefits of statehood under the federalist system. Importantly, they do not receive representation within the federal government itself: they do not send representatives to congress, and they have no power to elect the President of the United. This creates a system in which the federal government controls Puerto Rico, but Puerto Rico does not have the ability to impact the federal government’s decisions.

Once statehood is granted there is no legal process for leaving the United States. While territories can, and have, separated from the United States to form independent nations, states are not permitted to leave. This means Puerto Rico would have to give up the opportunity to become an independent country if they became a state.

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The 16 territories of the United States

There are currently 16 U.S. territories.

Of these 16 U.S. territories, 11 are unorganized, unincorporated territories called the United States Minor Outlying Islands. These islands do not have any permanent residents, and are unlikely to become states in the future.

1. Midway Atoll became a territory in 1859 and is located in the North Pacific. It is 2.4 square miles and operates as a wildlife refuge.

2. Wake Island has been a territory since 1898 and is located in Micronesia in the Western Pacific. It is 2.9 square miles and is home to an airfield administered by the U.S. Air Force.

3. Johnston Atoll is a 1.03 square mile territory claimed by the U.S. in 1858. It operates as a wildlife refuge.

4. Kingman Reef is 6.9 square miles, but mostly submerged. It is located in the North Pacific and was claimed by the U.S. in 1860.

5. Palmyra Atoll is a 5 square mile archipelago located in the North Pacific, 1000 miles from Oahu. It was annexed in 1898 along with Hawaii, but did not become part of the state of Hawaii in 1959. It is the only territory that is incorporated, but unorganized.

6. Howland Island was claimed in 1858 and is located in the North Pacific. It is 1.7 square miles and operates as a wildlife refuge.

7. Baker Island was claimed is 1856 and sits in the North Pacific, just 42 miles from Howland Island. It is less than one square mile in size and also operates as a wildlife refuge.

8. Jarvis Island is a 1.83 square mile island in the South Pacific. It was claimed in 1856 and is a wildlife refuge.

9. Navassa Island is a 2.1 square mile island in the Caribbean Sea that was claimed in 1856. It is the subject of a territorial dispute, as Haiti has also claimed the island.

10. Bajo Neuvo Bank is a 42 square mile uninhabited reef located in the Caribbean Sea and administered by Colombia.

11. Serranilla Bank is a 140 square mile uninhabited reef, also located in the Caribbean Sea and administered by Colombia.

The remaining territories are populated and could become U.S. states (although only Puerto Rico is likely to do so).

12. Puerto Rico is a 3,515 square mile territory claimed in 1898. It is located in the Caribbean and home to about 3.7 million people.

13. Guam is a 209 square mile territory located in the Western Pacific. It was claimed in 1898 and has a population of about 160,000.

14. The Northern Mariana Islands is a 179 square mile commonwealth of 14 islands located in the Western Pacific. It was placed under U.S. control in 1947 and is home to about 55,000 people.

15. The United States Virgin Islands is a 133 square mile island group located in the Caribbean. They were purchased by the U.S. in 1917 and have a population of about 107,000.

16. American Samoa is a 77 square mile territory located in the Pacific, just East of the International Date Line. It was claimed in 1899 and has a population of about 55,000 people. Unlike people from the rest of the territories, residents of American Samoa are U.S. Nationals, not U.S. Citizens.

Should Puerto Rico become a state?

There are benefits to Puerto Rico remaining a U.S. territory, and benefits to Puerto Rico becoming a state. The question does not have an obvious answer, and Puerto Ricans themselves are split on whether they want to become a state.

Why Some Think Puerto Rico should not become a state

Puerto Ricans already benefit from U.S. sovereignty under their territorial status. Residents of Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States, and they are free to move to any of the U.S. states if they want the benefits of statehood.

Becoming a state would mean that Puerto Rico would be unable to become its own country. Given that Puerto Ricans have more in common culturally with other Caribbean countries than they do with the mainland United States, some Puerto Ricans would prefer to become independent.

Puerto Rico’s challenging economic status complicates the benefits of statehood. If Puerto Rico becomes a state, is likely that they will declare bankruptcy, which could have a boarder impact on the U.S. economy as a whole. Additionally, Puerto Ricans would be required to pay U.S. federal income tax if Puerto Rico became a state; they do not currently have to pay income tax as residents of a U.S. territory.

Thus, there are reasons why Puerto Rico should not become a state:

  • Puerto Ricans already benefit from U.S. sovereignty.
  • Becoming a state would mean giving up the potential to become an independent sovereign country.
  • A bankrupt Puerto Rican state could impact the rest of the United States.
  • Puerto Ricans would have to pay more in taxes.

Why Some Think Puerto Rico should become a state

Residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens living in the United States who are subject to Federal law without any representation in the Federal government. Some argue that this represents disenfranchisement of American citizens; others note that Puerto Rico’s lack of representation is hard to justify since they have a population larger than 21 U.S. states.

Puerto Rico’s debt crisis needs to be resolved, and Puerto Rico is explicitly excluded from Chapter 9, title 11 bankruptcy code. Although there is an experimental restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt in process, debt holders are expected to challenge the plan. Statehood could provide better bankruptcy protections and more bargaining power for Puerto Rico.

Finally, if Puerto Rico became a state, Puerto Ricans would be required to pay income taxes to the Federal government. This would increase tax revenue, partially offsetting the cost of fixing Puerto Rico’s economy in the short term and providing a steady stream of additional tax revenue in the long term.

There are a number of reasons why Puerto Rico should become a state:

  • Puerto Ricans would receive better representation in the U.S. Federal Government.
  • Puerto Ricans would have a say in electing the U.S. President.
  • Being protected under Chapter 9, title 11 of the bankruptcy code could improve Puerto Rico’s finances.
  • The United States would generate increased revenue by assessing income taxes in Puerto Rico.

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