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Puerto Rico: The 51st State?

On December 28, 2011, then-Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno (R-PR) signed into law a local statute to hold a vote on Puerto Rico statehood among island residents in November of 2012.

On Election Day, November 6, 2012, voters were asked a two-part question. The first part asked if the relationship with the United States should be changed. Nearly 54% of voters supported a change. A second question then presented the options for change. The results are as follows: statehood, 61%; sovereign free association, 33%; independence, 5%. This is the first time ever that statehood has received more than 50% of the vote.

Since Puerto Rico is a sovereign U.S. Commonwealth, we are ordinarily unconcerned with their internal politics.  But this vote is dangerous to the cause of Official English.

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.

Consequences of Statehood

 Puerto Rico would be our first Spanish speaking state. Over 95% of Puerto Rico’s population speaks Spanish and fewer than 20 % are proficient in English. In comparison, California, the state with the lowest English proficiency rate, still significantly surpasses Puerto Rico’s rate – about 80% of Californians are proficient in English.

Should Puerto Rico become a state, legislative and legal proceedings there are currently conducted entirely in Spanish. Would Spanish be used for the official record in federal and state courts in Puerto Rico? What language will 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?

These concerns do not even touch the economic consequences of adding Puerto Rico as a state. Those too are numerous. Take, for example, the average median household income in the United States-- $50,046 in 2010. In Puerto Rico, the average was just $18,862. This is less than half of the lowest median income for any state in the United States – Mississippi at $36,851.

U.S. Census Bureau data also shows that 41% of people in Puerto Rico live in poverty. Unemployment is 13%. 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, would cost the government an additional $20 billion dollars a year.

Finally, as a state Puerto Rico would rank 28th in terms of population. This means in addition to two Senators, the state would also have at least six Congressional representatives. That means eight votes in the Electoral College in Presidential elections.

United States residents should be aware of these consequences in admitting the territory as a state. Likewise, residents of Puerto Rico should be aware of the expectations they will face in assimilating with the culture in the United States.

For more information about Puerto Rico statehood and the impact it would have on our national unity, please click here to read the U.S. English briefing titled “A Clash of Cultures: The Future of Puerto Rico and the United States.”

U.S. English Efforts

 In March 2012, U.S. English Chairman Mauro E. Mujica completed a fact-finding trip to Puerto Rico, which allowed him to talk with local leaders and with the island media about these issues. He reiterated that Puerto Rico’s current status as a Commonwealth gives citizens the best of both worlds—the benefits of being a territory of the United States, but also the freedom that comes from maintaining their own unique language and cultural heritage. More importantly, he successfully stated that U.S. English, on behalf of its 1.8 million members and the majority in the U.S. Congress, will never support a 51st State where the core functions of government are conducted in a foreign language.

Mr. Mujica explained, "Rather than arguing about the future of Puerto Rico's political status, political leaders should instead be working together to help solve the island's economic problems. U.S. English believes that the future political status of Puerto Rico should be chosen by the will of its residents-- however, if statehood is elected, we would like to see it done with the support of a supermajority (not simple majority) of voters, and English should first be declared the sole official language."
Official English is crucial to our national identity and our unity as a country, and U.S. English will remain an active player as this issue progresses. Currently, we are working to educate not just legislators in Congress, but the public as a whole on what Puerto Rico as our first Spanish speaking state would mean. All of the aforementioned areas of concern must be brought to the attention of the American public not just through publication of our research, but with advertising campaigns, which will be a priority of U.S. English in the coming weeks and months.

Related Media Coverage

Since the November 6, 2012 plebiscite, some media stories have highlighted controversy surrounding the way in which the vote was conducted. Others have centered around the likelihood of Congress actually passing statehood legislation, suggesting that passage is unlikely. For further information, see the links below.

 What Can You Do?

If you too worry about the consequences that admitting a Spanish speaking 51st state would cause for the United States, please consider helping our cause.

Click here to visit our Online Donation Center. No donation is too small to help our cause!

Click here to visit our Action Center, where you can send a pre-written letter to your Member of Congress, urging them not to support statehood for Puerto Rico until, at minimum, English is declared the sole official language, and Puerto Rico operates as a primarily English speaking territory.

Or, click here to visit our E-Alert sign-up page, where you can request to be added to our email update system to stay informed of the latest developments on this important issue.

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