SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico's new representative to the U.S. Congress filed a bill Wednesday that would turn the island into the 51st U.S. state by 2025.
The bill is the first step in a renewed quest for statehood that is to include a referendum letting Puerto Rico voters choose between independence and statehood, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez told The Associated Press.
She filed the bill less than a day after she was sworn in as Puerto Rico's first female congressional representative, saying she aims to secure equal treatment for the more than 3 million U.S. citizens living in the U.S. territory.
"We are treated as second-class American citizens," said Gonzalez, a Republican who once served as speaker of the island's House of Representatives.
The bill also aims to relieve a decade-long economic crisis that has sparked an exodus of more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland in recent years. If Congress ultimately accepted Puerto Rico as a state, the island would receive roughly $10 billion in additional federal funds a year, Gonzalez said.
"The territorial status has contributed to the economic crisis," she said. "We don't get assigned the same resources."
Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898 and gained limited political autonomy when the U.S. approved its constitution in 1952. However, islanders can't vote in presidential elections and their congressional representative has limited voting powers. Islanders pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, but receive less federal funding than U.S. states.
Statehood is a top priority for Puerto Rico's new governor, Ricardo Rossello, who was sworn in Monday to head an island government that is struggling with nearly $70 billion in debts. He has said that in addition to the bill filed Wednesday, he plans to hold elections to choose two senators and five representatives to Congress and send them to Washington to demand statehood, a strategy used by Tennessee to join the union in the 18th century.
Rossello expects to submit legislation next week calling for the referendum to decide the future of Puerto Rico's political status.
Puerto Rico has held four nonbinding referendums since 1967, with voters in the first three mostly split between statehood and remaining a U.S. commonwealth. In a two-part referendum held in 2012, 54 percent of voters in the first question said they wanted a change in status. In the second question, 61 percent said they favored statehood, but so many left that part blank that critics say the results were muddled.