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Puerto Ricans as Immigrants and Other Misperceptions

People born in Puerto Rico are coming to the States in large numbers. Immigration is a major political issue. These two issues have nothing to do with each other, in reality, because Puerto Ricans are natural-born U.S. citizens. But immigration and Puerto Rico’s status still tend to become entangled politically.

Here are some reasons that the two issues end up connected.

Incorrect belief that Puerto Ricans are immigrants

A recent CQ Magazine article on drunk dial calls to Congress listed this one:

“We should deport all of them. You only care about illegals.”

— Caller to a member of Congress’ office regarding Puerto Rico residents, who are American citizens, relocating to Florida.

A few years ago, mainstream news articles described Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as “the daughter of immigrant parents.” Many readers and commentators jumped on that and it was quickly corrected, but the fact remains that major news outlets published this error.

When people talk about deporting Puerto Ricans, they are talking about deporting U.S. citizens and describing U.S. citizens as “immigrants,” but we can’t deny that these attitudes still exist.

Hurricane Maria had the effect of alerting more Americans to the fact that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and the Island’s residents are U.S. citizens. Still, millions of Americans remain ignorant of these facts.

As long as there is widespread belief that Puerto Ricans are immigrants, Puerto Ricans in the States may face aspects of the immigrant experience, including anti-immigrant discrimination.

Hispanic solidarity on Puerto Rico’s status and immigration issues

U.S. immigration issues involve people from all over the world, but the largest group of immigrants to the U.S. is Hispanic. Immigrants from Mexico have accounted for more than 26% of the total immigrant population since 1960, and Guatemala, El Salvador, and Cuba are also in the top ten source countries for immigrants to the United States.

Groups that focus on civil rights for the Hispanic population of the United States often support immigration issues, for this reason. Puerto Rico’s inequality with the States, caused by the territory’s status, are also a concern for Hispanic rights groups. By the same token, Puerto Rican activists often express solidarity with other Hispanic groups on the subject of immigration.

The growing Hispanic voter population has become a focus for political parties. Immigration is a hot-button issue for many Hispanic voters, and equality for Puerto Rico is equally important to voters of Puerto Rican heritage. As the number of Puerto Rican voters in states like Florida increases, political parties are beginning to emphasize both these matters.

Puerto Ricans versus immigrants

Seeing stronger awareness of and support for immigrants to the U.S. than for the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico can feel like a slap in the face. Puerto Ricans, citizens since 1917, have fought for the U.S. military since the Civil War. How, many wonder, can the U.S. show greater concern for people who are not citizens than for millions of U.S. citizens facing inequality on soil belonging to the United States?

There is a history of recruiting Puerto Rican workers in the States to jobs that are often filled by immigrants. The combination of Hurricane Maria’s devastation and the prospect of tighter control of immigration has created anxiety in some industries in the U.S. One response has been increased outreach to Puerto Rico for workers.

While bringing people to States for work doesn’t create jobs in Puerto Rico, this scenario may exacerbate an “us vs. them” mentality.

While some of the connections between Puerto Rico and immigration are based in confusion over the facts, it’s likely that the two issues will continue to be entangled in the run up to the next presidential elections.

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