• Rafael Bernal

Florida Democrat introduces bill to recognize Puerto Rico statehood referendum




A bipartisan House group on Tuesday introduced a resolution to recognize the results of Puerto Rico's upcoming statehood referendum, which will be on the territory's ballots in November.

The resolution, led by Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), recognizes the validity of the referendum, declaring that the president and Congress would have a duty to move toward statehood if voters choose that option.

November's referendum, the first yes/no vote on statehood that has been scheduled during a general election, was not sanctioned by the Department of Justice, despite Republican Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced's entreaties.

But the local legislature passed a bill mandating the referendum on the core issue that divides the territory's politics.

Soto's resolution pits statehood against proponents of a longer process, which would have Puerto Rico form a Status Convention to analyze different sovereignty options for the island before putting the results up for a referendum.

New York Democratic Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last month proposed a bill to form such a commission, arguing that statehood is not the only viable option to provide Puerto Ricans with adequate representation.

But that bill has been panned by several top Puerto Rican Democrats including Soto, the first Florida representative of Puerto Rican origin, Puerto Rico Democratic Party Chairman Charles Rodríguez and Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), who is a co-sponsor of Soto's bill.

One point of agreement is that Puerto Rico's current status is unsustainable. Statehood supporters argue that their proposal has a clear path forward, and is the only proven status arrangement compatible with the U.S. Constitution.

“Come November, Puerto Rico has a new opportunity to take a step forward in addressing its status,” said Soto.

And supporters of Soto's bill also say that the inclusion of a majority Hispanic state — New Mexico is currently the most Hispanic existing state with 49 percent Hispanic population — would help Latino causes throughout the country.

“On the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month, the introduction of our resolution is about respecting democracy and the will of the people of Puerto Rico. If Puerto Ricans vote for statehood, we must take action to admit the 51st state of our Union,” said Soto in a statement.

Hispanic Heritage Month begins Sept. 15 — the date Mexico and four Central American countries celebrate their independence from Spain — and goes through Oct. 15.

Puerto Rican politics have gained relevance in national races, as hundreds of thousands of the island's residents have moved to central Florida over the past decade.

Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and can vote for president if they reside in one of the 50 states, but cannot as residents of Puerto Rico.

The demographic change in Florida has upended the swing state's politics, pushing the Hispanic political center of gravity north from Miami's largely Cuban American population to Orlando's Puerto Rican-dominated districts.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden later on Tuesday will kick off Hispanic Heritage Month in Kissimmee, Fla., near Orlando, after his campaign hosts a press conference on Puerto Rico.

Soto's resolution is co-sponsored by Serrano, who is retiring at the end of the year, the two Republican territorial delegates, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (Puerto Rico) and Aumua Amata Radewagen (American Samoa), and all Florida Democrats — Reps. Alcee Hastings, Val Demings, Charlie Crist, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Al Lawson — as well as two Republicans, Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) and Don Young (Alaska).

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