In a series of Supreme Court cases settled in the early 20th century known as the Insular Cases, jurists and legal scholars argued that Puerto Rico and other newly acquired territories were “inhabited by alien races” that were too culturally and racially distinct to be governed under “Anglo-Saxon principles.” The court created the category of “unincorporated territories” to justify the unequal application of constitutional rights in these areas. Congress has since leaned on this distinction to justify denying Puerto Ricans equal benefits.
Indeed, the Vaello-Madero decision reaffirms the uneven application of constitutional rights. Justice Neil Gorsuch devoted his concurring opinion to the history of the Insular Cases and called for them to be overruled. He argued that they “have no foundation in the Constitution and rest instead on racial stereotypes.”
It’s certainly past time to repeal these racist and xenophobic precedents. But even if the Insular Cases were repealed, there is no guarantee that other arguments would not be used to keep denying S.S.I. and other entitlements to Puerto Ricans and residents of other unincorporated territories. What we need to address is the very concept of unincorporation, which is little more than a justification for colonialism.
Two competing bills that seek to end Puerto Rico’s colonial status are currently deadlocked in Congress. The Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, introduced by Darren Soto and Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative Jenniffer González-Colón, would lead to an immediate and binding yes or no vote on statehood. The other bill, known as the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, co-sponsored by Representatives Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Robert Menendez, would facilitate a longer process of discussion, deliberation and, most importantly, education on the question of status options. A third consensus bill is now under consideration.
If passed, this would be the first time Puerto Ricans have ever been given the chance to truly participate in a democratic process aimed at decolonization. Until now, we have only ever been presented with check boxes on symbolic ballots that were not tied to actual legislation.
Decolonization is not just a matter of Puerto Ricans coming to terms with their political options but also of ending the silence and obfuscation of the United States’ imperial history. Today most Americans know little about the details of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States. Indeed, many are not aware that the United States remains a federation of states and territories, as well as associated republics and sovereign tribal nations.
Colonialism is deeply embedded into our governmental institutions in ways that impact not just the decisions of Supreme Court justices but also the everyday decisions made by average Puerto Ricans seeking a dignified life. Like my mom, many today are forced to make the same hard choices — between their homeland, their friends and family ties and the care they need and are entitled to.