Reps. Nydia Velazquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both Democrats from New York, alongside Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, introduced new legislation Thursday touting an inclusive process for Puerto Ricans to determine the U.S. territory’s future status and its relationship with the mainland.
The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021 calls for the creation of a “status convention” made up of delegates elected by Puerto Rican voters. The elected delegates will be tasked with coming up with long-term solutions for the island’s territorial status — whether it be statehood, independence, a free association or any option other than the current territorial arrangement.
Menendez explained that the delegates would also engage in formal talks “with a bilateral negotiating commission” composed of several members of Congress and other federal officials. Options discussed would “be put before the people of Puerto Rico to vote in a federally recognized referendum for the first time,” Menendez said during a press conference.
Most Puerto Ricans favor statehood or some form of its current territorial status. But historically, the island’s chances to meaningfully explore independence as an option were limited, especially during the Cold War when Puerto Rico was of strategic importance to the U.S. and the nation’s military.
Ocasio-Cortez said the self-determination bill is as much about allowing Puerto Ricans to assert their political identity as it is “about the identity of the United States.”
“If we want to consider ourselves a democracy and live up to our values, it is fundamentally incompatible for an open democracy to have subjects,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Puerto Ricans living on the island are U.S. citizens but don’t vote in U.S. presidential elections. They don’t pay federal income taxes, since they don’t have voting representation in Congress. But they do pay payroll taxes, helping fund federal programs such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which often serve as lifelines in a territory where 44 percent of the population lives in poverty. But as a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico has unequal access to these programs compared to states.
“A colony is incompatible with democracy, it’s incompatible with full citizenship, and we should all be able to enjoy the right to vote for our leaders,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “We should all be able to enjoy the right to equal treatment, and self-determination is how we can accomplish that in a process that is respected by all.”
Velazquez and Ocasio-Cortez introduced a similar version of the bill last year with 20 Democratic co-sponsors in the House. But the newest version counts with 71 Democratic co-sponsors in the House and a companion bill in the Senate. The Senate version introduced by Menendez has seven co-sponsors, all Democrats except Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
Both bills present an alternative to pro-statehood legislation introduced earlier this month by Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., and Rep. Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of Congress and a Republican. The measure has 58 co-sponsors, 13 Republicans and 45 Democrats. A version of the bill was introduced in the Senate this week by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., with three other Democratic co-sponsors.
The pro-statehood bills comes amid renewed efforts to pressure Congress to act on the results of a nonbinding referendum in November that directly asked voters whether Puerto Rico should immediately be admitted as a state. With nearly 55 percent voter turnout, about 53 percent of Puerto Ricans who voted favored statehood while 47 percent rejected it, according to Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission.
In a statement Thursday, González accused supporters of the self-determination legislation of perpetrating attempts to “silence the majoritarian vote and the will of the people of Puerto Rico.”
“It should be up to the people, through their vote, to determine their future,” said González, who is also a leader of the local political party in Puerto Rico that promotes statehood. “This is not what the bill introduced by Velazquez and Ocasio-Cortez does, which instead ignores the will already expressed by our people and intends to impose their own views upon us.”
Velazquez pointed out two key differences between the self-determination legislation and the pro-statehood one.
The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021 creates a binding process obligating Congress to act on the will of the Puerto Rican people and “respects the rights of the minority in Puerto Rico to be able to participate in a broad, democratic, and transparent inclusive effort,” Velazquez said.
Puerto Rico has held a few other referendums in recent years, all federally nonbinding.
In a 2017 plebiscite, 97 percent of those who voted favored statehood, but opposition parties boycotted the vote, resulting in a record low turnout of 23 percent. In another 2012 plebiscite, 61 percent of voters sided with statehood, but that referendum was also mired in controversy over the way the choices for voters were phrased.
In hand with these plebiscites, similar versions of the Soto-Gonzalez statehood bill have unsuccessfully been introduced in Congress since at least 2015.
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Nicole Acevedo is a reporter for NBC News Digital. She reports, writes and produces stories for NBC Latino and NBCNews.com.