MIAMI (AP) – Puerto Rican attorney Iara Rodriguez waved campaign signs and cheered at the 2012 Democratic Convention as Barack Obama was nominated for president. But the delegate's euphoria faded when she returned home and, like everyone else living in Puerto Rico, she could only watch as the rest of the country voted for its commander in chief.
By January, she had moved to Orlando, joining a record number of Puerto Ricans who have left the island in recent years — more than 60,000 in 2012 — the majority of them landing in Florida. Most are fleeing Puerto Rico's deepening economic crisis, yet their presence on the mainland is drawing newfound attention to an age-old question of whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state, remain a territory or become independent.
A loose coalition of civic leaders in Florida and on the island is seeking to leverage the growing Puerto Rican presence to turn this issue into something the rest of Americans can easily understand: a fight for equality and the right to vote. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth, but because the island is only a territory, its residents can vote for president only if they move to a state.
"It's a citizenship issue. It's like when women weren't able to vote, when African-Americans weren't able to vote," Rodriguez said. "One of the reasons that my husband and I moved here to Florida was to not feel like a second-class citizen."
Florida is home to nearly 1 million Americans of Puerto Rican descent and is fast gaining on New York, which has around 1.2 million, according to the U.S. Census. Statehood advocates are counting on Florida's unique position as a fulcrum in presidential elections to help amplify their message in a way that emigrants in the Democratic stronghold of New York haven't been able to.
Supporters are pushing their message of equality at the state and national level. This fall, the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida held its second annual moot court, inviting law school teams to argue the constitutionality of giving the island full political rights. In Orlando, former GOP state representative and attorney Tony Suarez is launching a grassroots Republican group that puts Puerto Rican equality among its top priorities. And in November, a group founded by the former president of the University of Puerto Rico held a rally outside the Capitol in support of equal rights.
The U.S. seized Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War in 1898 and gave its residents citizenship in 1917, as the nation needed soldiers to fight World War I. Ever since, Puerto Ricans have been divided over their relationship to the mainland — members of a radical independence group attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman in 1950 and opened fire on the House of Representatives in 1954.
Today, those passions are more subdued. The 3.6 million residents of Puerto Rico pay only Social Security and Medicare taxes to the federal government. They have one member of Congress, but they don't get a vote on the House floor. They also have no say in most federal laws and regulations that govern them.
In a 2012 nonbinding referendum, just over half of voters rejected the island's territorial status for the first time. In a follow-up question, over 60 percent of those who answered said they favored statehood over partial or outright independence.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties support Puerto Rican statehood in their platforms, but neither has done much to make that happen, especially as Puerto Rican Gov. Alejandro García-Padilla continues to argue the island is better off without statehood.
For Puerto Rico to become a state, a bill would have to pass Congress, which can't happen without significant GOP support. But many in the GOP are unenthused about creating a new state with the population of Connecticut that they fear could add two Democratic senators, up to five House members and seven electoral votes for Democrats.
Florida U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist were among a handful of Republicans who came out in support of last month's rally at the Capitol. But Republicans made up only about a dozen of the 125 co-sponsors for a House bill introduced last spring to give Puerto Rico statehood.
Victor Rodríguez, a law student at Barry University in Orlando who participated in the moot court, is among those young people in Florida and on the island who believe the island's older generation values Puerto Rican culture and the Spanish language above potential statehood benefits.
Rodríguez, whose father is Puerto Rican, said he was surprised to learn through his preparation for the competition that he would lose his vote if he moved to the island.
"Younger people see the issue as a question of fairness, and they're more likely to want statehood if that's what it will take to be like the rest of Americans," he said.
Carlos Javier Vélez, a 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran who lives in Puerto Rico, agrees.
"My generation is becoming more Americanized, more comfortable with the culture," he said. "How is it I can't vote for the person who will send me to war?"
Velez says he's been pushing his siblings and father in Florida and New Jersey to become more politically engaged — providing him something of a proxy vote.
"The reason my immediate family voted in this last election was because I activated them," he said.
San Juan attorney Andres López believes Puerto Ricans should take notes from the gay community, which shifted in recent years from a more abstract push for gay rights to focus specifically on marriage equality.
"When you talk about status and territory, those are abstract concepts, but equality of citizenship is something everyone can get," he said.
López, an Obama campaign adviser, has been pressuring his party to take a more proactive role. He helped engineer Obama's 2011 visit to the island, the first official trip of a sitting president to Puerto Rico in half a century.
López is among a number of statehood advocates who believe the island's current economic crisis cannot be resolved until Puerto Rico's status is.
So far, all 37 states that have asked to join the union have been accepted. Hawaii earned statehood just two years before Obama was born in Honolulu. The president has said he favors statehood, if a clear majority on the island supports it.
"Every indication is that's where we'll end up," López said. "But who's going to claim the political credit for doing it?"