OP-ED: U.S. engages in ‘citizenship apartheid’ regarding Puerto Rico
It is high time the United States extended the right to vote in presidential elections to the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. Enactment of a constitutional amendment to secure this right would be a sensible first step to full enfranchisement until the more contentious issue of statehood is resolved.
The Puerto Rican suffrage question recently attained a new level of urgency and relevance after a U.S. district court judge ruled that the federal government’s denial of disability benefits for the island’s most vulnerable residents is unconstitutional.
In a scorching opinion, Judge Gustavo Gelpi — a George W. Bush appointee — accused the United States of engaging in a “citizenship apartheid” that excludes Puerto Ricans from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program simply because they live in a U.S. territory.
Their “Hispanic origin” has driven U.S. policy on the island, “despite their birthright United States citizenship,” he wrote. “Allowing a United States citizen in Puerto Rico (who) is poor and disabled to be denied SSI disability payments creates an impermissible second rate citizenship akin to that premised on race and amounts to Congress switching off the Constitution.”
His ruling takes on the legacy of the Insular Cases, a series of controversial early 20th century Supreme Court decisions that cast the inhabitants of the United States’ newly acquired overseas territories as unfit to become citizens — and thus unworthy of certain constitutional protections, including trial by jury.
While the U.S. did award American citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917, Congress and successive administrations have continued to withhold the sacrosanct Fifth Amendment rights of Due Process and Equal Protection, as Judge Gelpi aptly demonstrates.
An arguably broader abuse of power — the denial of voting rights to the commonwealth’s 3.2 million U.S. citizens — renders them unrepresented in Washington and unable to protect their interests nationally.
Denial of suffrage should in itself be enough for Congress to act; three additional arguments bolster the case.
First, Puerto Rico’s population makes it larger than 21 states, all other U.S. territories and Washington D.C. That’s a lot of disenfranchised people, whose combined federal tax bills total more than $3 billion a year.
Second, there’s legal precedent. The 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, gave District of Colombia residents the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections. And the new House leadership is on record as the first in a generation to endorse D.C. statehood.
But perhaps the most powerful rationale is based on the blood and valor of Puerto Rico’s military veterans.
Since 1917, more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. military; since the Korean War, 1,225 have died on the battlefield. More than 100,000 veterans currently live in Puerto Rico.
These numbers are vastly disproportionate to the island’s population — yet despite the sacrifice none has a say in our democracy.
Puerto Rico’s sons and daughters have featured prominently in every major U.S. military conflict dating back to the American Revolution, when they fought as Spanish subjects.
During the Civil War, San Juan native Lt. Augusto Rodriguez commanded the 15th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, later receiving the Army Civil War Campaign Medal.
These events occurred well before the U.S. annexed the island in 1898. Since then, Puerto Rico has become a key strategic location.
In World War I, San Juan headquartered American forces protecting shipping lanes and monitoring hostile activity in the eastern Caribbean and central Atlantic. By 1943, more than 55,000 service personnel were deployed around the island. Later, the U.S. used its Puerto Rican bases to project power and keep watch on Cold War rivals Cuba and the USSR.
Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry Regiment (“Borinqueneers”), was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2014 — the first Hispanic military unit and first Korean War unit to receive such distinction.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur praised the regiment, writing that the group gave “daily proof on the battlefields of Korea of their courage, determination and resolute will to victory.”
For all the achievements, these patriotic citizens cannot vote for their commander in chief.
Enacting a constitutional amendment to secure voting rights would do more than reverse a legacy of discrimination. It would support Puerto Rican veterans who have been America’s willing partners since the Revolution, helping to deter aggression and expand freedom.
Our sacrifice validates Judge Gelpi’s decision. Puerto Ricans are ready to participate actively in our democracy and become true stakeholders in it.
–— Raul Eduardo Rosas is retired from the United States Navy and is executive director and founder of Lift a Vet, a non-profit based in Columbia, Md. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.