One of the most powerful prosecutions of former US president Donald Trump last week came from Stacey Plaskett of the US Virgin Islands, the first delegate from an American territory to hold the position of impeachment manager.
Yet Plaskett’s status meant that she was unable to vote for Trump’s impeachment because she has no vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. The US Virgin Islands has no representation at all in the Senate. Its residents cannot even vote for president.
The anomaly illuminates America’s long unaddressed colonial history that leaves five territories floating in constitutional limbo, their residents – most of them people of color – effectively treated as second-class citizens.
But with the impetus of last summer’s protests against racial injustice, and the election of a Democratic president, one of those territories – Puerto Rico – is aiming to become the 51st state of the union. A parallel effort by Washington, District of Columbia (DC), is also closer than ever to its similar goal.
‘It is incredibly important to take a step back and look at who actually has real representation in democracy,” said Stasha Rhodes, campaign manager of 51 for 51, an organization pushing for DC statehood. “If you think about all the players that you mentioned, they all have a common thread: they’re all people of color. Does America have a true democracy if so many people of color are standing outside looking in and are not able to fully participate?”
There are five inhabited US territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Apart from American Samoa, people born in the territories are US citizens and pay federal taxes such as Medicare and social security, though not federal tax on locally sourced income. Each territory sends a delegate to the House who can debate legislation and sit on committees but is not able to actually vote.
Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony until 1898 when it fell under US control as part of the terms that ended the Spanish-American war. In 1917 the Jones Act granted Puerto Ricans US citizenship and in 1952 it became a commonwealth of the US – but still without voting rights in American presidential elections.
Over the past half century Puerto Rico has held six non-binding referendums on its status and last November voted 52%-47% in favor of statehood, a cause boosted by grievance over the federal government’s inadequate response to Hurricane Maria in 2017. In an interview last week with Axios on HBO, Governor Pedro Pierluisi said “Congress is morally obligated to respond” and predicted that a House bill will be introduced next month.
George Laws Garcia, executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, said: “You have a bunch of unelected individuals making decisions on behalf of the people of Puerto Rico over the desires and ideas and perspectives of the local elected officials, which I think is basically…
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