Puerto rico territory: Why Isn’t Puerto Rico a State?

What Does Being A U.S. Territory Mean For Puerto Rico? : NPR

What Does Being A U.S. Territory Mean For Puerto Rico? Residents of the territory have been frustrated with the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria. What responsibilities does Washington have to the people of Puerto Rico?


Tim Webber

President Trump walks with FEMA administrator Brock Long (second from right) and Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan (right) as he tours an area affected by Hurricane Maria in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 3.

Evan Vucci/AP

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Evan Vucci/AP

President Trump walks with FEMA administrator Brock Long (second from right) and Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan (right) as he tours an area affected by Hurricane Maria in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 3.

Evan Vucci/AP

President Trump posted a series of early morning tweets on Thursday that put the disaster spotlight back on Puerto Rico.

In one tweet he reminded everyone that Puerto Rico’s «electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes.» In the next one he blamed Puerto Rico for its looming financial crisis and «a total lack of accountability.» Finally, he appeared to threaten to remove federal aid workers from the territory after Hurricane Maria.

…We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2017

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello responded by tweeting that Puerto Ricans «are requesting the support that any of our fellow citizens would receive across our Nation. «

The U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are requesting the support that any of our fellow citizens would receive across our Nation.

— Ricardo Rosselló (@ricardorossello) October 12, 2017

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico more than three weeks ago, and residents of the territory have been frustrated with the federal government’s response. Mainland politicians have also been urging the president to do more to help, such as New York Rep. Nydia Velazquez, who represents a large Puerto Rican constituency. She told NPR last month that the government’s response has not been proportional to the extent of the disaster.

House Speaker Paul Ryan plans to visit Puerto Rico on Friday. The House on Thursday passed a $36.5 billion disaster aid package that includes money for communities affected by wildfires and hurricanes. It provides $1.27 billion for disaster food assistance for Puerto Rico.

What it means to be a U.S. territory

So what does it mean to be a territory, and what responsibilities does the federal government have to the people of Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico is one of five inhabited U. S. territories, along with American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands. People of these territories (except some in American Samoa) are U.S. citizens, pay federal taxes such as Social Security and Medicare – but not federal income tax — and can freely travel within the U.S.

Much like states in the U.S., the territories also have their own governments and elect their own governors.

Unlike states, the territories do not have a vote in Congress. They each send a delegate to the House who possesses all powers of a representative besides voting rights, like the ability to debate legislation or sit on committees.

The territories also send delegates to political conventions, such as those to nominate presidential candidates. However, the territories have no electoral votes in the presidential election.

Despite their inability to vote on federal issues, Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens for more than 100 years and the government has the same responsibilities toward them as it does to other U. S. citizens.

How Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory

Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony until 1898, when the U.S. gained control of it, along with Guam and the Philippines, as part of the terms ending the Spanish-American War. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed a bill declaring Puerto Rico an «unorganized territory.» This designation meant that Puerto Ricans were not yet U.S. citizens, but did provide them with a seat in the U.S. House.

An ambiguous Supreme Court ruling a year later defined Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory. Its residents received some constitutional protections, but they were not considered part of the United States and did not receive full constitutional rights.

In 1917, the Jones Act granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, restructured the territory’s government and created a bill of rights. It also made it easier for the U.S. to recruit Puerto Ricans to serve in World War I. The 1920 Jones Act restricted shipping to Puerto Rico and was temporarily waived after Hurricane Maria.

Despite these changes, the political status of Puerto Rico remained in limbo until the mid-20th century. In 1948, Puerto Rico elected its own governor for the first time under U.S. control. Four years later, the U.S. approved the Constitution of Puerto Rico, establishing it as a commonwealth of the United States. This meant Puerto Rico remained a U.S. territory, but created a «more highly developed relationship» with the federal government.

Since then, Puerto Rico has held referendums for statehood five times, most recently this year. While Puerto Ricans have rejected statehood in the past, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of it in June. That referendum, however, was nonbinding and has no bearing on whether the territory will become a state. That decision is left up to Congress.

Tim Webber is an intern on NPR’s National Desk.

Clarification Oct. 13, 2017

A previous version of this story said that Puerto Rico residents are U.S. citizens who pay taxes. More specifically, they pay taxes such as Social Security/Medicare but (with some exceptions) do not pay federal income taxes.

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A Colony Is a Colony Is a Colony: Puerto Rico and the Courts

October 20, 2021

Colonialism is generally not a topic of discussion or analysis in constitutional law studies in the United States. Yet U.S. constitutional law has both shaped and been shaped by projects of colonial expansion and continues to have a material impact on Indigenous Peoples across the American continent. As we reflect upon Latinx Heritage Month, and on the heels of the anniversary of our continent’s pillage by European colonizers, the intersection between colonial rule and the case of Puerto Rican self-determination emerges as one of the many sites of ongoing anti-imperialist struggle.

Puerto Rico’s colonial status dates to the “discovery” of the American continent by European imperial powers 528 years ago. Like most of Central and South America, the island was under Spanish rule for over four centuries before being handed over to the U.S. in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. The nineteenth century was an era of territorial expansion for the U.S., which annexed territories both within and beyond the American continent. While most of the North American land it acquired during this period eventually gained statehood as part of the U.S. strategy to grow the reach of its Republic, other territories were annexed without any plans of extending enfranchisement to their constituents. Whether through the elimination of Native Peoples and their replacement by white European settlers or through the forced extraction of mineral resources and labor, the mosaic of legal categories assigned to U.S. land followed its original design of imperial domination. 

The Insular Cases of 1901 are the seminal holdings from the U.S. Supreme Court that set the foundation for Puerto Rico’s historical disenfranchisement. In Downes v. Bidwell, the U.S. Supreme Court analyzed the question of whether the newly annexed territory of Puerto Rico was part of the “United States” for constitutional purposes. According to the Court, Constitutional protections do not “follow the flag” to the island colonies invaded and annexed by the U.S. in the early 1900s, including Puerto Rico. In a perverse twist of logic, the Court held that Puerto Rico “is a territory appurtenant and belonging to the United States, but not a part of the United States.” Donwnes. Invoking a legal category that to this day continues to be applied arbitrarily to modern colonies, the Court reasoned that Puerto Rico is “foreign to the United States in a domestic sense, because the island had not been incorporated into the country.” Id.

In the Court’s view, incorporated territories formed an integral part of the United States and were on the path to statehood; unincorporated territories did not and were not. Instead, they merely “belong” to the United States. 1 Conveniently, both categories are considered “domestic territory” that falls within U.S. boundaries and is therefore subject to its sovereignty. Although the Insular opinions are fraught with these self-serving distinctions, a concurring opinion by Justice White suggested that for the legislature “to accept a cession of and permanently hold territory which is not intended to be incorporated” could conceivably amount to a “violation of duty under the Constitution.” See Downes. In other words, any unincorporated territory must one day become incorporated and be put on a path to statehood or must be released from U.S. sovereignty. Otherwise, the United States would  have no moral or Constitutional grounds on which to argue that it is not acting as a colonial empire. 

The Insular Cases thus gave sanction to U.S. imperialism by both withholding most constitutional protections from these territories and denying them statehood. See Burnett. The Supreme Court’s treatment of Puerto Rico is an illustration of how U. S. constitutional law has not only furthered but produced and codified colonialism. Under the Insular analysis, the U.S. Constitution fully applies to incorporated territories (like states and the District of Columbia, which itself lacks electoral representation), but only its “fundamental” provisions apply to unincorporated territories.

In material terms and despite these feeble concessions by the Court, unincorporated territories largely fall in a sui generis zone beyond the Constitution — Congress maintains almost unbridled freedom in its administration of and governance over these colonies, for an undetermined period of time. Some commentators, however, have proposed a disputed reading of the Insular Cases that implies the U.S. could, within its own judicial logic, one day relinquish sovereignty over an unincorporated territory, thus “deannexing” it; this option of deannexation thus allows the U.S. to carry on with its policies of extraction and disenfranchisement without having to extend a promise of eventual deannexation — a boundless worst of both worlds. See Burnett. While there is no constitutional process for states to leave the federation, if deannexation is not constitutionally precluded, the U.S. maintains an advantageous mechanism for imperial retreat. 

After the first fifty years of Puerto Rico’s time under U.S. control, and in the fashion of other “postcolonial” quasi-governments, authority over the island’s governance was eventually transferred to San Juan. In 1950, the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 600, which stated that the people of Puerto Rico would be entitled to “organize a government.” After a public referendum in which Puerto Ricans overwhelmingly voted in favor of Public Law 600, the Constitutional Convention of Puerto Rico drafted a constitution for the newly established Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. 

The U.S. Congress then insisted on taking its turn revising the document, after which Puerto Rico’s Constitution was proclaimed by the island’s governor, instituting legal self-governance on its people. This catapulted Puerto Rico into an unprecedented legal status that on the one hand entitled it to governance through self-rule, much like a state, while on the other remaining classified as unincorporated, unlike any other state in the Union. The Supreme Court itself has asserted that Public Law 600 and Puerto Rico’s Constitution were meant to extend to the island as much autonomy as it would be “normally associated with States of the Union” and that the U.S. legislative branch has constitutionally ceded authority over Puerto Rico’s local affairs.2 Yet the millions of Puerto Ricans who remain within the island’s territory are still subject to indefinite and unlimited authority from Congress to legislate over them. 

While Puerto Ricans were afforded U.S. citizenship in the first half of the twentieth century, the fundamental problem of the island’s colonial status persists. Over a hundred years have passed since its forced annexation, yet Puerto Rico remains in a legal limbo of inequality and disenfranchisement relative to the rest of the U. S. polity. Although the shapes of U.S. colonial control over the territory have changed in both name and nature, unincorporated territories lack even “a modicum of sovereign independence from the federal government” and continue to be entirely “creations of Congress,” which retains plenary power over them.3

With the proliferation of months dedicated to celebrating different identities that have for too long been pushed to the periphery, we must not forget that representation does not equal liberation. Latinx Heritage Month calls us to look beyond statements from everyone from elected officials to corporations and from academic institutions to nonprofits that pay lip service to diversity without taking meaningful steps to address the historical harms that these communities have endured. As a territory perpetually relegated to an extra-constitutional realm, Puerto Rico remains without a path to either statehood or independence. Just as a rose by any other name would not change its scent, calling Puerto Rico a sovereign but unincorporated state does not change the nature of its legal status: a colony in everything but name. The Center for Constitutional Rights remains committed to supporting our comrades in Puerto Rico in their struggle for self-determination.


1 United States: American Expansion and Territorial Deannexation, Cristina Duffy Burnett.
2 Sanchez Valle, 136 S. Ct. at 1874. (quoting Examining Bd. of Eng’rs, Architects & Surveyors v. Flores de Otero, 426 U.S. 572, 594 (1976)).
3 130 Harv. L. Rev. 1632 Harvard Law Review April, 2017 Developments in the Law The U.S. Territories. Chapter One. Territorial Federalism. 


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October 20, 2021

Hurricane Fiona left Puerto Rico without electricity (photo)

Strong winds damaged power lines, resulting in a complete blackout: Puerto Rico is completely without power due to Hurricane Fiona, which rages over the Caribbean Sea. The hurricane has already claimed the life of a resident of neighboring Guadeloupe: water streams literally washed away his house, and his body was found two days later.

Related video

On Sunday, September 18, all of Puerto Rico was left without power as Hurricane Fiona approached the island, threatening torrential rainfall on its southern coast. It is reported by USA Today.

Representatives of the local power grid operator Luma, said that strong winds damaged power lines, and this led to a complete blackout on the island located in the Caribbean Sea.

«It’s time to take action,» said Nino Correa, spokesman for the Puerto Rico Emergency Commission.

Hurricane Fiona leaves 3.2 million Puerto Ricans without power

Puerto Rico is a US dependency with the status of an «unincorporated organized territory», that is, it is under the control of the United States, but is not part of them. US President Joe Biden has declared a state of emergency on the island of 3.2 million inhabitants.

Rainfall is expected to exceed 65 cm in the areas most affected by the hurricane.

Last Friday, a tropical storm that later became a hurricane claimed the life of a Guadeloupe resident: water currents literally washed away his house, his body was found two days later.

On Sunday, the storm was assigned the first category of danger, after sustained winds reached 128 km/h.

«These rains will cause dangerous flooding in cities in Puerto Rico and the eastern Dominican Republic, with landslides expected in higher elevations,» the National Hurricane Center said.

Consequences of the past

Consequences of a storm 5 years ago

raging sea

Locals reinforce windows

On Saturday, the Puerto Rico National Weather Service reported that the Blanco River in the southeastern part of the island burst its banks. Residents of this part of the island were advised to move to more elevated places.

Forecasters predict rain and wind in Ukraine for the current week. According to the Hydrometeorological Center, rainy weather will last until next weekend. It will be coldest in the west of Ukraine, and sleet will fall in the Carpathians.

Earlier Focus reported that entire regions in Australia were left without food due to severe floods that occur once every 200 years.

Puerto Rico: 51st US state?

Puerto Rico is one of 14 territories dependent on the United States, two of them have the status of «commonwealths» (Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands), and 12 — the status of «possessions» (for example, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, etc.). .). The inhabitants of all these territories (with the exception of American Samoa) are US citizens.

The US took control of Puerto Rico in 1898, after the war with Spain. Then other Spanish colonies — Cuba, the Philippines and Guam — also came under US control. All these territories were initially controlled by the American military administration.

Since 1917, Puerto Ricans have been US citizens, and since 1952, Puerto Rico has had the legal status of «commonwealth» (commonwealth), the corresponding decision was made in a national referendum. This status is rather vague, however, it implies that a «commonwealth» is a territory whose population has the right to self-government within the framework of the constitution adopted by it, and the right to self-government cannot be canceled as part of a unilateral decision of the US federal government.

The four states of the United States are now «commonwealths» — Virginia, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. In 1934, the Philippines received this status, at the same time Washington announced its intention to grant independence to the Philippines, which happened in 1946.

The head of state of Puerto Rico is the President of the United States, but the head of government is a governor elected by the inhabitants of the island. The Governor and Parliament of Puerto Rico have full power over domestic politics, the United States manages international trade, customs, currency, provides control over air and sea space, deals with defense, pensions and social security, etc. Residents of Puerto Rico vote in elections to Congress The United States, however, their interests are not represented by a “full-fledged” congressman, but by a deputy commissioner who does not have a decisive vote (a representative of the Federal District of Columbia has a similar status).

They are also not eligible to vote in US presidential elections. Residents of Puerto Rico (with the exception of US federal departments — officials, military and postal workers) do not pay income tax to the federal budget.

At the same time, Puerto Rico has an independent representation in the international arena: in particular, its Olympic team performs separately from the US team, girls from Puerto Rico perform at the Miss Universe contests under their own flag, delegations from Puerto Rico participate in the work a number of international organizations as full members.

However, the international status of Puerto Rico is much lower than, for example, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau — these states were first «trust» territories of the United States, and then acquired the status of free association with the United States. They grant Washington the right to ensure their defense and security, but retain complete independence in other areas of foreign and domestic policy.

Since the early 1950s, there has been discussion about what the fate of Puerto Rico might be. All these years, three possible scenarios have been discussed that do not contradict the US Constitution — maintaining the current status, gaining independence or joining the United States as a state (the corresponding verdict was issued by a special Presidential Commission to determine the future of Puerto Rico, established by Bill Clinton in 2000 ).

The US Constitution provides for the formation of new states on the basis of a number of conditions, the corresponding procedure was applied dozens of times — the last time in 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state (before that they had the status of a administered territory).

Usually, the formation of a new state requires that this territory meet a number of criteria. These include, for example, the readiness of the new state to recognize legal acts entered into by other US states (for example, court verdicts and marriage certificates), the population (at least 60 thousand people), the republican form of government, the presence of an effective economy … All these criteria Puerto Rico complies.

The desire of the vast majority of the population to become a state is also required. So, in the case of Hawaii, 91% of those who voted in the referendum supported this decision.

On November 6, the option of forming the 51st state of the United States received majority support in Puerto Rico for the first time. As part of the referendum, two issues were voted on.

The first question showed that 54% of Puerto Ricans are dissatisfied with the current status of relations with the US (51% are satisfied).

The dissatisfied answered the second question by choosing options for solving the problem.

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