U.S. and Puerto Rico flags hang outside the governor’s mansion in Old San Juan. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)
SAN JUAN – Pro-statehood activist Gregorio Igartúa refuted a letter sent by former Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that challenged the constitutionality of the June 11 status referendum.
In the letter, Igartúa asked the Justice Department to treat Puerto Rico as a “de facto incorporated U.S. territory,” which means the island is on route to becoming a U.S. state.
“Please treat us as what we are, American Citizens since 1917, residents of the de facto incorporated territory of Puerto Rico where the Constitution applies,” he said. Puerto Rico has been declared an unincorporated territory, in which only fundamental rights apply but not all constitutional rights are applicable. An incorporated territory is in the process of becoming a state.
Igartúa, who filed a lawsuit in the First Circuit Court of Appeals that seeks to force the United States to allow Puerto Rico congressional representatives, noted that the commonwealth status violates voting rights and the Constitution.
March 30 is the deadline for individuals to send statements to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions regarding the options for the status vote, which if not validated by the federal agency by April 15 will be considered valid. On June 11, the government will hold a referendum election for voters to decide between statehood and free-association/independence. If the second option wins, there will be a second vote in October between free association and independence. Free Association is defined as an option in which U.S. citizenship will be conditioned upon an agreement with the United States.
Popular Democratic Party leaders, such as former Govs. Rafael Hernández Colón and Acevedo Vilá, have said the plebiscite discriminates against thousands of Puerto Ricans who support the commonwealth status and wish to develop it further as a future alternative that allows the island to negotiate better terms with the United States to further the local economy.
Hernández Colón, in particular, says the status vote violates the Congressional law under which it was created and cites a report by the White House Task Force on Puerto Rico that calls for all status options to be included. He says the status vote is designed to help statehood win the plebiscite.
Acevedo Vilá has said the statehood definition is unlawful because it fails to include that statehood requires the public school system and the courts to operate in the English language.
Igartúa said Puerto Rico’s citizens have been able to operate using both English and Spanish under federal laws, as well as having the U.S. District Court and federal agencies present.
“Former Governor Acevedo Vilá’s personal achievements undermine any concerns he may have about the English language under statehood,” Igartúa said, noting that Acevedo Vilá is a Harvard Law School graduate and was a former resident commissioner.
Igartúa also dismissed claims by Acevedo Vilá that either the improved-commonwealth or sovereign-commonwealth statuses were constitutional because these continue a “pattern of discrimination” that does not fit the U.S. constitutional framework.
“In fact, they have been trying to define what their commonwealth status really means for more than 70 years and intend that the American citizens of Puerto Rico vote for such alternative. Thus, his request for your intervention on such grounds is baseless,” he said.