Puerto Rico is a US territory, not a state. Why is this distinction important, and why does it persist even today? It all goes back to the 16th century when the Spanish planted their flag and claimed the island as a colony. Despite multiple short-lived rebellions and slowly increasing autonomy, Puerto Rico would only be freed from its Spanish overlords in 1898, when the USA declared war on Spain to liberate Cuba and replaced the Spaniards as the occupiers of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Ricans’ struggle for autonomy and equality continued, but Washington was wary of giving Puerto Rico freedom or incorporating them fully, as that would have forced them to acknowledge the Philippines as well (a US territory at the time), which would have led to increased racial mixing in the racially-segregated USA. Puerto Ricans were not given US citizenship, and Puerto Rico itself only received ‘unorganised territory’ status.
The Jones-Shafroth Act changed this, allowing most Puerto Ricans to be recognised as US citizens, but Congress kept the power to veto Puerto Rican ‘state’ laws. This Act was aimed at making the islanders eligible for forceful conscription to the armed forces (20,000 in World War I). Finally, everyone born in Puerto Rico was designated a citizen of the USA, followed by Puerto Rico drafting and adopting their own constitution in 1952.
Why is statehood important? Because Puerto Rico isn’t technically a US state (a commonwealth, as per their own constitution),Puerto Ricans lack some of the key rights of mainland Americans. They send delegates to presidential nominating conventions, but they can’t cast electoral votes in the general election. They are subject to federal laws, but lack voting representation in Congress: Though the Puerto Rican delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives may serve on committees and introduce bills, they cannot vote. Meanwhile, residents of Puerto Rico do still contribute to Social Security and Medicare.
The journey to statehood can only begin if there is vocal support from US citizens, both on and off the island. Statehood doesn’t appeal to many Puerto Ricans, due to the persistent anti-US sentiment, with many islanders still claiming to be ‘colonial subjects of the United States’, not true citizens, as they had no choice in their fate. On the mainland, only 54% of Americans know/consider Puerto Ricans to be US citizens, and scholars believe that Puerto Ricans are not full U.S. citizens due to the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which declares that all people born or naturalized in the U.S., or subject to its jurisdiction, are citizens. Since the territory isn’t technically in the U.S., proponents of the constitutional theory believe Puerto Rican-born citizens aren’t subject to the clause.
With neither side willing to budge or cooperate with each other (the US refuses to decolonise its territories despite calls in favour from the UN, while only 23% of Puerto Ricans even acknowledged a 2017 US referendum for statehood by showing up and voting), the matter doesn’t seem close to being resolved.