GOP sidesteps language precondition for Puerto Rico in platform

At the Republican National Convention this week, the GOP will again endorse the right of Puerto Ricans to determine their future within the United States, including as the potential 51st State. The issue is especially relevant this year, because Puerto Ricans in November will have the chance to endorse the statehood option in a territorial referendum.

The Puerto Rico language of the 2012 platform is identical to that included in the previous three platforms, and, ironically, is located just two sections below the plank opposing outright statehood for the District of Columbia. It reads:

We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state if they freely so determine. We recognize that Congress has the final authority to define the constitutionally valid options for Puerto Rico to achieve a permanent non-territorial status with government by consent and full enfranchisement. As long as Puerto Rico is not a State, however, the will of its people regarding their political status should be ascertained by means of a general right of referendum or specific referenda sponsored by the US government.

The GOP platform, however, sidesteps the question of whether the party in Congress would torpedo a potential Puerto Rico statehood bid if the territory continues recognizing both Spanish and English as its official languages, or, the language of government institutions and administration.

Although the GOP has never officially called for Puerto Rico to drop Spanish as an official language as a precondition for statehood, the topic caused a stir on the eve of the Puerto Rican Republican Primary in March when former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said that English should be spoken universally before Puerto Rico be admitted to the Union. Santorum later clarified his remarks to say that the territory’s principal language should be English in order to achieve statehood.

As it stands, nothing in the US Constitution requires US territories make English their official language a precondition for statehood, nor does the Constitution even recognize English as the official language of the United States. Although Congress has in the past required that territories adopt English-only laws as preconditions for statehood, these ad-hoc requirements were drawn up over a hundred years ago under vastly different circumstances and affected far fewer people than were similar requirements to be foisted upon millions of Puerto Rican residents today.

Although the media widely panned Santorum’s Puerto Rico comments, almost certainly aiding in his 79% loss to Mitt Romney in territory’s primary, it’s not entirely clear the Republican Party is that far removed from Santorum’s English-only approach to Puerto Rican statehood.

Presumptive candidate Romney in March said he opposes a language precondition for Puerto Rico, as does the territory’s pro-Romney, pro-statehood Governor, Luis Fortuño, who is scheduled to give a primetime speech to the Republican National Convention in Tampa on Wednesday.

But Romney’s stance opposing a language precondition for Puerto Rico is seemingly at odds with his support for establishing English as the official language of the United States. This was also a plank of the GOP’s 2008 platform.

Moreover, GOP Congressman Steve King has five times since 2003 tried to transform this plank into law by introducing HR 997, known as the “English Language Unity Act.” HR 997 would, among other things, require that all official functions and proceedings of the US government be conducted in English. The bill, which attracted as many as 164 cosponsors in 2005, has nevertheless died with the end of every Congress, however, and the current iteration has been sitting in committee since March 2011 (although a hearing was earlier this month).

How an officially bilingual state government would operate under an officially English-only federal government is anyone’s guess. The situation could resemble that of Spain, where regional languages such as Aranese, Basque, Catalan, and Galician have “co-official” status with Castilian (Spanish) at the local level, but not nationally, as is the case with French and English in Canada.

The issue probably will remain dormant for the remainder of the general election campaign. As a territory, Puerto Rico will not cast any votes in the Electoral College, meaning candidates have no need to articulate or refine their stances on statehood.

Things could quickly gain steam after the dust settles in mid-November, however, particularly if Puerto Rican voters endorse the statehood option in their referendum and the issue inches toward Congress.

Polling shows that Americans overwhelmingly support establishing English as the country’s official language, and a GOP-controlled Congress—potentially faced with the very real prospect of admitting the first officially bilingual, Spanish-language majority territory to the Union—may find it difficult to sidestep the issue as it has in its own platform and with HR 997 for much of the last decade.

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