For all too obvious reasons, driving the lonely highways of West Texas at night brings extra scrutiny from law enforcement officers. If you are exceeding the speed limit the level of attention increases. Should the driver be someone with very dark skin and a thick hispanic accent, being pulled over is almost guaranteed.
So, it came as no surprise when my friend Kelvin told the story of how he got pulled over one West Texas summer night. Kelvin had never met a speed limit he didn’t like to exceed. He is also very dark skinned and he grew up speaking Spanish. To top it all off, his Toyota Sienna was traveling ninety miles per hour. At 4:30 AM, just outside of Odessa, Texas, those traits make you very likely to get stopped.
Exiting his squad car, the Texas Highway Patrol officer approached the minivan and asked for Kelvin’s driver’s license. Not seeking any trouble, Kelvin produced his Puerto Rican driver’s license. The officer immediately asked to see his passport.
Unfortunately, this is a regular occurrence for many Puerto Ricans. A 2017 survey by Morning Consult found nearly half (46%) of the people polled did not know Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States of America. Aside from being annoying, this general misconception creates a variety of other problems. In 2010, a resident of Chicago, Illinois was held for three days and threatened with deportation, for identifying himself as being from Puerto Rico, when he became embroiled in an unrelated legal matter. Eduardo Caraballo even produced a birth certificate and repeatedly asserted his citizenship, but he was still detained for a weekend and threatened with a visit by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
The rights of an American citizen being violated by the very people who swore to protect those rights is a travesty. However, the perception of Puerto Rico as a foreign country has also magnified tragic situations leading to people suffering needlessly.
For many years during the twentieth century, Puerto Rico enjoyed a very strong economy. This lead Congress to lower tax rates in an attempt to entice manufactures and pharmaceutical companies to relocate to the island. Eventually, the Puerto Rican economy descended into a recession and the tax break was phased out. To combat the shrinking economy, the local government began raising funds through sales of bonds and borrowing large amounts of money. Instead of solving the problem, the debt ballooned and became unmanageable. Finally, in the summer of 2016, the Puerto Rican government defaulted on its payments. Instead of helping secure funding to improve their economy, Puerto Rico went broke.
After the default, concern for the people of Puerto Rico appeared to be lacking. There was much resistance in the United States to help restructure the debt and the entire practice seemed designed by Wall Street to exploit tax loopholes at the expense of Puerto Rico. The financial crisis stressed Puerto Rican infrastructure, leaving it ill equipped to respond should an emergency arise. All of this occurred because Puerto Rico was seen as something less than a part of the United States.
September 20, 2017
Just two weeks after Hurricane Irma swept to the north of Puerto Rico, leaving approximately one millions residents without power, Hurricane Maria made landfall. Sustained winds of 155 miles per hour slammed into the island, knocking down cell towers and weather stations and knocking out power to all 3.2 million Puerto Ricans. Access to clean water was limited and many parts of the island experienced food shortages.
Already struggling with the fallout from their financial crisis, the devastation of Hurricane Maria stretched resources to a breaking point. Flooding and mud slides made travel almost impossible. Some areas of Puerto Rico went without electricity for almost a year. 80 percent of the crop value for Puerto Rico was destroyed during the storm and associated flooding. On average, Puerto Ricans were without cellular service for 41 days, did not have access to water services for 68 days, and lived without electricity for almost 85 days. 3.2 million citizens of the wealthiest nation in the world went without power for almost three months. Worse still, the official death toll was 2,975 people. Click here for a more detailed accounting of the devastation.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) responded to the natural disaster, but the response was hampered by a number of factors. It is very difficult to get equipment and supplies to an island. It takes either a long time or incurs a large expense. Hurricane Maria was also the third major hurricane to make landfall in the United States during the 2017 hurricane season.
Even factoring in the logistical challenges, the response to the devastation in Puerto Rico was disproportionate. Less federal workers were deployed, less supplies were sent to the island, and less financial aid has been approved. FEMA defends its response to the natural disaster, but the lack of equitable response is troubling.
-For more information, here is a link to an PBS article detailing the responses to the three hurricanes of 2017.-
Perhaps the difficulty involved in transporting goods to the island accounted for a majority of the problems, but more likely it is the confusion surrounding Puerto Rico’s status in the United States. Of the 46% of the people who were unaware Puerto Rico was part of the United States, only 40% of those people were in favor of federal aid to the territory. However, overwhelming support existed to send aid for Houston and South Florida, the areas hit by the first two hurricanes. Help for Puerto Rico became an afterthought.
December 28, 2019-January 11, 2020
The bad luck for the territory of Puerto Rico continued into early 2020. This time the disaster consisted of earthquakes. Hundreds of earthquakes have shaken the island in the past few weeks. Of the many, three were notable for their magnitude and the associated damage. On December 28th, a 4.9 earthquake shook the island. A 6.4 earthquake hit January 7th, and a 5.9 quake followed on the 11th.
There is no good time to have an earthquake, but the worst time might be two major earthquakes occurring on an island still recovering from a devastating hurricane. According to the Associated Press, local officials estimate almost 5,000 people, United States citizens, have been made homeless by the series of earthquakes. Yet, the United States government has not sent FEMA to investigate damages and there has been no comments from the federal government. Once again, the territory of Puerto Rico is an afterthought in the minds of many Americans.
Enough is Enough
As a part of the treaty ending the Spanish-American war, Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States in 1899. Almost twenty years later, in 1917, the Jones Act granted United States citizenship to residents of Puerto Rico. However, the relationship between Puerto Rico and The United States has always been vague. In 1901, the Supreme Court ruled Puerto Rico not an independent country and yet not a state. For domestic matters it was viewed as an unincorporated territory and thus a foreign entity. This creates a political conundrum where 3.2 million American citizens live in a United States controlled foreign territory.
The citizenship matter becomes even more complicated where voting rights are concerned. Puerto Rican residents can vote in party primaries and elect a non-voting representative to the United States congress. However, when it comes to presidential elections, Puerto Ricans are not eligible to vote. That is, unless they relocate to one of the fifty states or Washington, D.C.
The treatment of Puerto Rico by the United States of American has been shameful. A country founded by men who were unhappy with the lack of representation in British Parliament is treating its own citizens in exactly the same manner. In 2012 and 2017, Puerto Ricans voted in favor of statehood referendums. But Congress has yet to act decisively. There is currently a bill introduced into the House of Representatives which sets forth a pathway to statehood. But many in Puerto Rico think this bill will be like the over 130 other bills introduced in the past 50 years which all failed to resolve the political situation concerning Puerto Rico.
One begins to wonder the reason for inaction concerning statehood. Perhaps some people do not want to redesign the American flag. Although, that argument is rather etherial. They cannot oppose statehood because it is an island. Hawaii is an island and it is much further away from the contiguous 48 states. Population size cannot be a factor either. According to 2018 US Census Bureau estimates, Puerto Rico is more populous than 21 current states, including Iowa, Delaware, and Utah. When you strip all other arguments away, Puerto Rico is poor and filled with Spanish speakers. That appears to be the root cause of the inertia preventing full statehood.
Puerto Rico is poor and has infrastructure problems. It will be costly to rebuild the island, but there are millions of United States citizens living there and they deserve the same rights and privileges as their fellow citizens. They deserve to pay federal income taxes and receive federal funding the other 50 states are allocated. Puerto Ricans deserve to vote for their president and should have a vote in Congress.
The very country that fought to escape colonial rule treats Puerto Rico like a colony. The United States is acting no better than the United Kingdom of the 1700’s. Puerto Rico’s citizens are, at best, treated as second class citizens and, at worst, treated like foreign nationals. It is long past due, but the time has come to welcome Puerto Rico into the statehood club. Then, when Kelvin gets pulled over and proudly displays his Puerto Rican driver’s license he won’t be asked for a passport, just for proof of registration and insurance.