OPINION – While there are many issues Congress must face this year as our country continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that our elected officials do not let these urgent matters distract from other issues that are important. One of these issues is respecting the will of the Puerto Rican people and moving to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.

Late last year, the majority of voters on the island voted in favor of admitting Puerto Rico as a state of the Union. This was the third vote on Puerto Rico’s status in the last decade, and each vote showed statehood winning the majority or plurality of support.

It is easy to understand why those in Puerto Rico long for statehood and all the rights granted to those who live in states. As a territory, their current status, those on the island do not get full voting representation afforded to other American citizens. They do not get the same federal benefits, even despite paying the same taxes, and many have chosen to leave the island and seek better opportunities elsewhere due to economic stagnation in Puerto Rico.

Additionally, one simply has to look to our own history in becoming a state to see why Puerto Ricans are in favor of statehood. The U.S. acquired California from Mexico in a treaty — the same process that later brought Puerto Rico into the United States. At nearly the same time, gold was discovered in California, which led to people immigrating here from all over the world. Across the then-territory, different areas had different laws and governing systems, which led to dramatic conflicts among the regions. Prices skyrocketed and the infrastructure couldn’t keep up with the population growth.

Californians knew then what Puerto Ricans know now, that statehood confers a certain amount of security that is helpful to make an area thrive. History has shown that statehood results in prosperity for those territories that became states. California quickly became a prosperous and influential state of the union – and remains so today. We also saw this with Hawaii and Alaska, the latest states to be admitted to the union, which saw their unemployment rates decrease post-statehood.

Lastly, this is a matter of respecting the will of the Puerto Rican people to fully participate in our democracy. I am proud to be one of nearly 2 million Filipina/o Americans living in California. The Philippines, like Puerto Rico, was once a territory of the United States without full power over its political future. For the United States to fully treat all of its residents equal under the law, it must respect the will of the millions of Puerto Ricans who have voted repeatedly to become a U.S. State.

Unfortunately, as other territories-turned-states know, just voting in favor of statehood multiple times is not enough to finally make Puerto Rico a state – it takes an act of Congress. This is why we are counting on Representative Doris Matsui to support Puerto Rico statehood, particularly given her position on the House Natural Resources Committee that has jurisdiction over the island’s status.

The Chairman of the Committee, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), has already indicated that he will hold a hearing on the status of Puerto Rico because he understands how important this issue is for the future of the island. So far, there is only one status solution that has the majority of support on the island, as well as bipartisan support in Congress, and that is statehood. It is critical that our elected officials like Rep. Matsui respects the will of the Puerto Rican people, and honors their democratically garnered decision in favor of statehood.

Lange Luntao | Special to the OBSERVER

Lange Luntao is the Founding Executive Director of the Reinvent Stockton Foundation. He previously served as President of the Stockton Unified School District Board of Trustees.