100 years and counting
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On March 2, the people of Puerto Rico will commemorate the 100 years anniversary of the passing of the Jones–Shafroth Act, better known as the Jones Act of Puerto Rico, which granted the residents of this Caribbean Island, born on or after April 25, 1898, the right to the U.S. Citizenship. The Act also created the local state Senate, authorized the election of a Resident Commissioner-it was previously appointed by the president-to a four-year term and created our own Bill of Rights, among other things.

The real motivation behind the passing of the Act is still matter of debate. One of the most commonly accepted theories is that the U.S. feared a possible German incursion in the Caribbean basin during World War One (1914-1918) and thus needed a buffer to contained. This argument make sense in the wake of the infamous Zimmermann Telegram, a secret diplomatic communication issued in January 1917 that proposed a German-Mexico military alliance against the United States. Two months later, when Congress passed the Selective Service Act, conscription was extended to the Island. About 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted during World War I. Most of them went to the Panama Canal Zone, but some Puerto Ricans, like renowned musician Rafael Hernández, proudly served on the dreaded Western Front. That said, the Jones Act was a landmark piece of legislation that provided some sort of justice to the Puerto Rican people after almost 20 years of colonial rule by the U.S.

The issue of the U.S. citizenship granted to Puerto Ricans in 1917 has always been in contention. There are many injustices associated with it. To mention a few, a Puerto Rican-born individual who lives in the United States can vote for the president, but they can’t do it on their homeland. We do not receive an equal amount of federal funds allocations for programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Above all, its worth remembering that the U.S. citizenship granted under the Jones Act is not constitutional. The Supreme Court can revoke. In essence, we are second class citizens, marginalized by political geography. This political limbo has constrained our economy and our society. We simply do not have the political tools to move our economy forward, to provide the people with a world-class healthcare system and to promote a better educational platform.

At the time, the Jones Act was seen as a stepping stone, a sort of first phase in the road towards a permanent status solution for the Island. Some pundits at the time asserted that the Act will pave the way for statehood for Puerto Rico. In his 2004 book, Decolonizing the Caribbean: Dutch Policies in a Comparative Perspective, which is commonly viewed as one of the most complete works regarding the early nineteen century policies in the Caribbean, historian Gert Oostindie, argued that the Act was viewed as a ‘transitional phase’ for statehood.

Nearly five generations have passed since the Jones Act became law, and for a certain group of U.S. citizens, full constitutional rights have yet to be achieved. This has to end now. Enough is enough. In 2012, the American citizens who lived in Puerto Rico voted to end more than a century of political limbo by discarding the territorial status in favor of statehood. The vote was clear, 54 percent of the people rejected the current state of affairs, while a robust 61 percent chose to join the Union as its newest state. That vote was reaffirmed last November when the voters elected a pro-statehood Governor, resident Commissioner and most members of the Senate and House of Representatives.

The message our voters sent was clear: we want statehood now. It’s time to finish what President Woodrow Wilson and the 64th Congress started a century ago. I urge the members of the 115th Congress, to act on the admission of Puerto Rico as soon as the people restate their desire in the June 11 status plebiscite. Lest finish together this road. It’s time to give full justice and equality to the American citizens living in Puerto Rico.

Carlos 'Johnny' Mendez, the Speaker of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.