Puerto Rico: The 51st State?

The recurring issue of Puerto Rico statehood was revisited yet again in the 117th Congress with two different legislative proposals, prompted by a new referendum vote within the Commonwealth in the 2020 elections. Once again the statehood referendum vote was pushed for by fervent advocates of statehood, and once again the outcome was a hollow result.

In the 2020 referendum and throughout the last decade statehood advocates have attempted to create the appearance of popular support for statehood with simple yes-or-no questions about “immediate” admission on the ballot. Such efforts are a rush to manufacture the mirage of a clear answer in a process that fails to meaningfully grapple with the implications of adding an overwhelmingly-Spanish-speaking state into the union, as well as what that would mean for the island. What’s more other valid options for Puerto Rico’s status were excluded from the vote, undermining the statehood movement’s claims to being about self-determination and ideals of Democracy.

Since Puerto Rico is a sovereign U.S. Commonwealth, we would ordinarily be unconcerned with their internal politics. However, U.S. English strongly maintains that statehood would be both wrong for Puerto Rico and extremely damaging to the role of English as America’s common and unifying language.

Historically, whenever territories with significant populations of foreign language speakers have joined our Union, Congress has attached significant English requirements to statehood. Consider these examples:

  • Before Louisiana became a state, President Madison signed the Louisiana Enabling Act, which required that judicial and legislative proceedings would be conducted in English.
  • Oklahoma and New Mexico were both required to have state constitutions providing that public school education would be conducted in English.
  • Arizona was required to guarantee that its executive and legislative officials could read, write, speak and understand English.

The acceptance of an entire U.S. state where public schools, courts, and the legislature operate in a non-English language would drive a spike through the unifying power of English, our common language.

The Consequences of Statehood

Puerto Rico would be our first Spanish speaking state, and the English literacy gap between it and the 50 U.S. states is tremendous – U.S. Census data shows that a staggering 94.5% of Puerto Rico residents age 5 and older speak a language other than English at home, and 76.6% can’t speak English “very well”.

Should Puerto Rico become a state, legislative and legal proceedings there are currently conducted entirely in Spanish. Stark questions present themselves: Would Spanish be used for the official record in federal and state courts in Puerto Rico? What language would be spoken by employees of the federal and state governments in Puerto Rico? If Spanish is chosen, how will they communicate with the rest of the United States?

Puerto Rico is currently exempt from the English language testing provisions of federal education law, and their system of education is taught primarily in Spanish. Should statehood occur, what language will be taught in Puerto Rican schools? Will English be treated as a foreign language? If Spanish is the principal means of educational instruction, how will English fluency be attainable by students?

U.S. Census Bureau data also shows that over 43% of people in Puerto Rico live in poverty. The unemployment rate was over 11% in 2020. Should Puerto Rico gain statehood, residents would become eligible for U.S. government benefit programs. Federal programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, funded at the same level as other states, could cost the government an additional $20 billion dollars a year.

United States residents should be aware of these realities when considering the merits of statehood for Puerto Rico. Likewise, residents of Puerto Rico must be aware of the expectations they will face in assimilating with the culture in the United States.