Organizations Call for Quick End to Puerto Rico’s Status as a U.S. Territory

On Monday, thirty Puerto Rican organizations wrote to President Biden demanding quick action on Puerto Rico’s political status by passing the Puerto Rico Status Act by the end of the year.

The letter began by thanking the president for his swift response following Hurricane Fiona.

“Unfortunately,” the letter continued, “federal aid and support for disaster recovery and reconstruction in Puerto Rico is simply not enough to change the persistent weakness, fragility, and trend of crisis after crisis which Puerto Rico is being subjected to by Congress and the entire federal government as a result of its unequal and undemocratic territory status.”

Examples of inequity

The letter went on to detail some examples of the unequal treatment of Puerto Rico.

  • Disaster assistance was the first point made. The letter referenced a new report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, titled Civil Rights and Protections During the Federal Response to Hurricanes Harvey and Maria. This report lays out the difference in responses to Hurricane Maria n Puerto Rico and to Hurricane Harvey in Texas. This very thorough report examine inequities within communities in Texas as well as in Puerto Rico, but stated that “The disaster relief and response efforts to the storms differed on many fronts. From landfall through six months after, the disaster response to Harvey in Texas was on a larger scale and faster than the response to María in Puerto Rico, and the Commission received testimony that the slow pace at which federal agencies dispersed aid to Puerto Rico significantly affected survivors’ recovery.”
    “Moreover, aid was available to Harvey survivors more swiftly after the hurricane struck,” the report explained in just one example. “FEMA dispatched its employees, along with the National Guard, within nine days of landfall for both hurricanes. Thirty thousand federal employees were dispatched to Texas, compared to 10,000 in Puerto Rico. One month after landfall, at the peak of FEMA’s aid efforts, 31,000 federal employees were dispatched to Texas, while 19,000 were dispatched to Puerto Rico.”
  • The Supreme Court case of Vaello-Madero, in which the court confirms that Congress could treat Puerto Rico differently from states, was another example given. In this case, the court approved a decision by Congress to refuse SSI benefits to residents of Puerto Rico who would be eligible for these benefits if they lived in a state.

The letter emphasized the central problem in Puerto Rico is its status as a U.S. territory.

Acknowledging that Congress and the president have attempted to provide more fair treatment for the territory on a case-by-case basis, the authors point out that “Even when Congress does manage to provide equal treatment in one federal program or another, these fixes are sometimes temporary and ultimately offer only a piecemeal approach to the island’s systemic inequality under the territorial governance structure. Moreover, under territory status there is no guarantee that a subsequent Congress could not pass legislation to backtrack and discriminate again against Puerto Rico’s residents again.”

The effect on Puerto Rico

“The cumulative result of this territorial inequality and disenfranchisement on Puerto Rico is persistent weakness and fragility in the island’s finances, economic prospects, infrastructure, local political institutions and the massive outmigration of residents leaving for the states,” the letter continues. It goes on to call for action on Puerto Rico’s political status. “The most powerful way that you can do this now is by formally endorsing the PRSA through a statement of administration policy, and then actively calling on Congress to vote on and pass this bill before the end of this year. The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico need and deserve a direct vote on the only constitutionally viable status options outside of the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution. The PRSA (Puerto Rico Status Act) meets that goal, it is both fair and binding. By allowing eligible voters on the island the ability to choose between ‘Statehood,’ ‘Independence,’ or ‘Sovereignty in Free Association with the United States,’ and including mechanisms for the implementation of these options, the PRSA provides a genuine process of self-determination.”

Supporters

The letter is signed by organizations including the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, the National Puerto Rican Equality Coalition, the Puerto Rico Senate, Young Democrats of Puerto Rico, Boricuas con Kamala, Patriots for U.S. Veterans, Progressive Women of NPP, Veterans for Puerto Rico Statehood Task Force, and members of the Extended Congressional Delegation for Puerto Rico.

Read the full letter.

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