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Rep. Hakeem Jeffries Promotes Equal Treatment for U.S. Citizens in the Territory of Puerto Rico

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) said, in his floor statement,

For just a moment, I wanted to reflect on one particular aspect of the omnibus bill that I find troubling, and that is the failure to do what is necessary to help put the people of Puerto Rico—United States citizens—on a trajectory that will allow them to achieve some manner of economic stability moving forward.

Now, I never practiced criminal law. I am a lawyer, attorney, but I understand that there are sometimes crimes of commission—that is when you affirmatively do something that is damaging—and then there are crimes of omission. I think that the greatest omission as it relates to this $1.1-plus trillion spending bill is the failure to do anything to help deal with the economic crisis that exists right now in Puerto Rico, a crisis, by the way, that, in large measure, has responsibility right here in the United States Congress.

In 1996, we began a process of a 10- year phaseout of provisions in the tax law that were put into place in order to help the economy of Puerto Rico. That 10-year phaseout ended in 2006. Over that period, it witnessed a dramatic disinvestment of corporate entities from the island of Puerto Rico toward the mainland and other places. A massive number of jobs were lost. That phaseout was completed in 2006. Puerto Rico has been in a deep recession ever since.

Now, every other citizen of the United States of America who lives in the 50 States here lives in a municipality that has bankruptcy provisions available to it to help it restructure its debt when necessary. The people of Puerto Rico, again as a result of a law enacted here in this Chamber in 1984, have been denied bankruptcy protection.

Fundamentally, all the people of Puerto Rico were asking for is to make sure that those citizens who live on the island can be put in the same place— not better—the same place as every other United States citizen so that they can avail themselves of bankruptcy protection to enable them to restructure their debt in a way that makes sense, that allows them to pay their teachers, their police officers, their firefighters, and others. And yet, when all that was done, all the acts of commission, with a $1.1-plus trillion agreement, we couldn’t help the people of Puerto Rico by simply putting them in the same place through restructuring provisions in a manner that would give them an opportunity without a single cent of taxpayer expense to be in a better place?

The people of Puerto Rico participate in the military, die in foreign conflicts of the United States of America at a rate higher than those in the 50 States, yet they are compensated, from a Medicaid reimbursement standpoint, around 40 or 50 percent—if not more— less.

We don’t have enough time to go through how policy set here in the United States Congress has devastated the people of Puerto Rico economically for the last few decades, but it does seem to me that we could find some way to deal with this issue.

We found a way to give away billions and billions of dollars to big oil companies as it relates to lifting the prohibition on the export of crude oil, but we couldn’t find a way to help the hardworking people of Puerto Rico. Shame on us here in the United States Congress.

Lastly, it is my understanding that the Speaker, who I take to be a man of his word, has said, well, we are going to deal with this issue in the next 90 days. But here is the problem. On January 1, there is a significant amount of money that Puerto Rico owes that it cannot pay, so the island can’t wait until March 31 for the Congress to try to work this out. The promissory note is not good enough.

As an African American Member of Congress, I am reminded of the speech that Dr. King gave in 1963 right outside these Halls on The National Mall. He talked about the fact that the eloquent and magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were a glorious promissory note: We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . all men are created equal . . . endowed by their Creator . . . the ability to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But century after century, decade after decade, that promissory note essentially was handed over to the African American community as a check stamped ‘‘insufficient funds.’’

I just can’t, with all or any degree of confidence, suggest that we could credibly say to the people of Puerto Rico and to those individuals of Puerto Rican descent that I represent back home in Brooklyn and in Queens that this so- called promissory note issued is going to result in us taking any action 90- plus days from now. I just hope that there is a way for us to find some measure of resolution before we ultimately vote on this omnibus bill to deal in good faith with the people of Puerto Rico—United States citizens—who deserve our attention.

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