The Puerto Rico Herald
February 20, 2004

The Coming Milestone In U.S.-Puerto Rico Relations

by John Marino

Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The day is approaching when there will be as many Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland as on the island of Puerto Rico, recent U.S. Census Bureau data indicate.
That fact is not only a milestone; it will likely influence all further discussion about Puerto Ricoís status in Washington and San Juan for years to come. As more Puerto Ricans move stateside, many will view it as a sign that most islanders want permanent union with the United States.

The status debate ó which has been going on here for over 100 years now, discounting the previous 400 years of discussions of Puerto Ricoís relationship to the Spanish crown ó will surely grind on, with talk of statehood, independence and various other relationships like commonwealth and free association that presumably contain elements of both ideals according to their proponents.

But meanwhile, the ties that bind, the real ties that bind, keep getting tighter and tighter between Washington and San Juan.

Federal funding for the commonwealth keeps going up, despite the weakness or strength of the relationship between the current commonwealth government and the reigning administration in D.C.

With the Bush plan to increase educational funding to Puerto Rico, phasing in increases so that it will get a share even to what it would get as a U.S. state in a few years, there are only a handful of areas in which the commonwealth has to fight the federal government for funding parity.

Meanwhile, decades of migration between the island and the continental United States have created a situation where there are as many Puerto Ricans stateside as on the island.

Nobody much is complaining. The New Progressive Party is pointing to the developments as evidence that statehood is inevitable. The Popular Democratic Party can as easily cite the level of federal funding and the freedom to travel and work throughout the United States as being more proof that commonwealth represents the best of both worlds. .

Only perhaps the Puerto Rican Independence Party, on strictly ideological grounds, would criticize the spiraling federal spending, which hit $14 billion in 2003, and the vast Puerto Rican population living stateside as being a symptom of the islandís essentially colonial status.

But take a look at the resumes of top PIP officials and youíre as likely to see diplomas from Harvard and Yale as from the University of Puerto Rico. And the PIP envisions winning a form of independence that would slowly wean Puerto Rico from its federal funding and phase in new rules regarding citizenship.

Meanwhile, both the PDP and NPP are paying closer attention to stateside Puerto Ricans, giving their burgeoning numbers. The Calderón administration has been funding for three years a campaign to register to vote Puerto Ricans living in the states. Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, seeking reelection to a third term in November, has a stateside campaign coordinator in Washington D.C.

Initially, it was economic opportunity that prompted Puerto Ricans to "brincar el charco," leaving the island for the United States. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was usually for an industrial job in New York or other urban centers in the Northeast coast.

Today, those leaving the island are usually professionals, often nurses or teachers, looking for better paying opportunities, and they are as likely to be heading to Florida, as to the Northeast.

At first, government officials promoted migration to the states as part of the solution to the islandís rampant poverty, with the Operation Bootstrap industrial program being the other component.

But today, they worry about a "brain drain." About 40 percent of medical school graduates leave the island for better paying U.S. jobs, according to a recent Orlando Sentinel report. In fact, a full 8 percent of the island population moved the United States over the last decade.

Since the great migration of Puerto Ricans began in the post World War II years, the immigration cycle has ebbed and flowed, and for many decades as many Puerto Ricans were returning to the island from the mainland as there were those leaving to seek economic opportunities stateside.

It is this ceaseless migration that will likely have the strongest impact on status discussions. If there is one thing Puerto Ricans donít want to lose, itís there ability to travel at a momentís notice to Orlando, say, or New York. Thatís especially the case since so many Puerto Rican families have members living both on the island and stateside. Nobody wants barriers to seeing an aunt or uncle, a son or daughter, or a mother or father.

This being a political year, there is talk once again about resolving Puerto Ricoís status. The White House has restarted its status commission, and presidential candidates are vowing to resolve the issue if elected.

The Popular Democratic Party is pushing for a referendum to convoke a constituents assembly, while the PIP wants to convoke an assembly immediately and then "confront" Washington with a status solution it draws up. The NPP, meanwhile, wants a referendum calling on Congress to take action on Puerto Ricoís status.

Rosselló has also vowed to wage a federal court fight to get action on resolving the islandís political status.

Many see the developments of promising a genuine momentum in resolving the century-long status dilemma of Puerto Rico. Skeptics, however, believe the initiatives stem more from politics than with a genuine concern with resolving the islandís status.

Regardless of the good intentions, or ulterior motives, behind such official status efforts, they are likely to pale in influence to trends in the larger relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.

Puerto Ricans everyday are leaving Puerto Rico for the United States. The reasons for doing so are in no way political. They are generally for personal reasons -- the desire for a better job, a better education, a better neighborhood.

And many are returning to the island for equally personal reasons ó the desire to live near family, to contribute to their homeland, simply to retire in a warm climate.

Itís the fabulous freedom of movement granted to the individual that is at the heart of the impact that Puerto Rican migration will have on future status discussions. Any talks that jeopardize that freedom will surely be rejected.

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John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net