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Puerto Rican Veterans Leaving the Island

In the current controversies about the best approach to economic growth for Puerto Rico, one topic comes up frequently but also gets sidelined easily: the number of Puerto Ricans leaving the Island for a State. On Memorial Day, some observers are noticing the connection with Puerto Rico’s veterans.

Puerto Ricans living in States typically are much better off financially than those living in Puerto Rico, where the poverty rate is far greater than in any of the 50 States. Puerto Ricans living in a State can also vote in presidential elections and have full representation in the United States Congress, which translates into broader inclusion in federal policies.

The incentives to leave Puerto Rico for a State are so significant that Puerto Ricans are leaving for the U.S. mainland in historic numbers. This exodus is bad for Puerto Rico’s economy, naturally, and has resulted in serious shortages in key professions, including doctors.

Harry Franqui-Rivera wrote a piece for NBC News Voices that looks at this phenomenon from the point of view of Puerto Rico’s veterans.

Puerto Ricans have participated in every U.S. conflict since the Revolutionary War, including the Civil War, both World Wars, and the Korean War, in which the Borinqueneers distinguished themselves. Franqui-Rivera says that there are more than 375,000 Puerto Rican veterans and men and women in active service, two thirds living in the States.

“From 2003 to 2015,” says Franqui-Rivera, “Puerto Rico lost 52,000 veterans. During that period, the island-based population went from 142,00 to 90,000. And this happened during a period of constant warfare in which Puerto Ricans continued to enroll in the military at a rate almost twice as high as the rest of the population. This means, that if anything, the island-based veteran population should have increased in numbers.”

The dwindling population of veterans in Puerto Rico is a problem because Puerto Rican veterans are a source of potential prosperity for Puerto Rico. In the same time period, 2003-205, payments of veterans’ benefits to military personnel from Puerto Rico doubled. And veterans have access to the GI bill, assistance with buying homes, and support for starting businesses. The Puerto Rican veterans who have access to these economic resources are receiving these benefits — but it’s not helping the territory because 40% of those vets live in a state.

Franqui-Rivera is calling on the Puerto Rico government to avoid making any cuts in veterans’ benefits because those cuts could lead to a loss of federal matching funds. He also wants to see the U.S. government change its tune.

“The least that a grateful nation should do to pay it back to those who were willing to pay the ultimate price is to work to make conditions in their home state or territory better. How would Congress react if tens of thousands of Texans or New Yorkers, after finishing their service, had to wave goodbye to their home states because their return is not economically viable? Can you imagine if a Californian or a Floridian veteran had to deal with the fact that Congress and the White House – the institutions that sent them to war – were unwilling to aid their home states in a time of grave need?”

Puerto Rico is overrepresented in the U.S. military and has been for a century. And yet we hear objections to financial support for Puerto Rico. “Congress and the White House get away with ignoring Puerto Rico’s plight hiding behind the public’s ignorance of the island’s political status as a territory of the United States,” says Franqui-Rivera, “and by ignoring the contribution of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have served and continue to serve in the United States Armed Forces.”

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