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Pierluisi Calls for Equal Treatment for All American Citizens Regardless of Residency

Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi, took to the Floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on May 17 to call for “equal treatment for all American citizens, regardless of where they reside.” Citing the territory’s ineligibility for core components of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, Pierluisi asserted that the unequal treatment of U.S. citizens in federal programs targeting the most vulnerable populations amounts to “geographic discrimination.”

The Puerto Rican non-voting delegate introduced legislation to provide his constituents and residents of other U.S. territories equitable treatment in the federal TANF program, just has he had done previously for two other federal programs targeting vulnerable populations –Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

(House of Representatives – May 17, 2012)

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The SPEAKER pro tempore. The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Puerto Rico (Mr. Pierluisi) for 5 minutes.

Mr. PIERLUISI. Madam Speaker, today I’m introducing legislation to provide equitable treatment to Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories under the TANF program, which provides cash payments to needy families with children.

Currently the territories are not eligible for supplemental grants, contingency funds, and child care funds under TANF. Moreover, Federal law imposes an annual cap on the overall funding that each of the territories can receive under a variety of public assistance programs, including TANF. My legislation removes this funding cap and makes the territories eligible for TANF grants that they do not presently receive.
Puerto Rico is treated unfairly under Federal programs designed to help our
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Nation’s most vulnerable residents. This TANF bill complements two previous bills I have introduced, which would include my constituents in SSI and SNAP. To see how Puerto Rico was hurt by its current territorial status, one need only look at the island’s shocking treatment under these three key programs.

When you look at the status and well-being of all the American citizens living in the territories, you realize that what they face is geographic discrimination. It makes no sense to penalize the American residents who decide to reside in the five territories belonging to the United States. The only reason that sometimes is raised for such discrimination is that the residents of the territories do not pay Federal income taxes. But it is not right to even raise that argument when close to half of the U.S. households in the U.S. and the U.S. mainland in the 50 States are not paying Federal income taxes because of their income levels. It is also not right when most of the vast majority of the residents in the territories would not pay Federal income taxes anyway.

What we’re talking about is fairness. What we’re talking about is parity. There should be equal treatment for all American citizens, regardless of where they reside within America. I support statehood for Puerto Rico for several reasons, one of which is this concept of parity. Once a territory becomes a State, it doesn’t have to seek parity. It automatically participates in all Federal programs.

That’s one reason. But I support statehood for Puerto Rico for a more important reason. I’m talking about the lack of voting rights for the residents of Puerto Rico . I, for one, suffer the consequences. I am the one the American citizens in Puerto Rico elect to represent them in this Congress. When I come to this Chamber, I can speak, I can introduce legislation, I belong to committees. But when the time comes to vote for or against bills that benefit or affect my constituents, I cannot do so. My name doesn’t even appear on the electronic board here in this Hall. That is embarrassing. It hurts me, and it hurts my constituents.

If Puerto Rico were a State, we would have at least five Members in the House of Representatives and two Senators advocating for our residents. That’s one of the reasons I support statehood. But there’s more to it than that.

Last year, President Obama visited Puerto Rico . I felt so proud because I had something to do with it. But you know what? It is embarrassing to say that no President had visited Puerto Rico in an official capacity in 50 years. We had to wait 50 years for a President to show up in Puerto Rico . I am sure that if the American citizens living in Puerto Rico were given the right to vote for their President, Presidents would be visiting Puerto Rico on a regular basis. They would be making commitments, they would be learning about our needs, and they would be doing the right thing with respect to the American citizens living in Puerto Rico .

On November 6, there will be a plebiscite in Puerto Rico and two questions will be posed before the voters. The first question will be whether they want Puerto Rico to continue being a territory of the United States. We have to ask that question because that’s how democracy works. The second question will ask them to express their preference with respect to the three available status options we have, apart from the current territorial status: statehood, independence, and free association. I hope they answer those questions, sending a message loud and clear to this Congress that they no longer want to be a territory and they want to be the 51st State of the Union.

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