By Angel Cruz
For more than 120 years, Puerto Rico has been a territory of the United States. For 103 of those years, Puerto Ricans have been American citizens.
Though separated from the mainland, Puerto Ricans freely travel back and forth everyday and are able to vote in primary elections. More than 100,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the United States military. If you visit larger cities like San Juan or Ponce, you are likely to find a McDonald’s or Burger King or Popeye’s Chicken.
Though proud of their heritage and fiercely protective of their own, you can find an American twist to the uniquely Spanish-Carribbean culture of Puerto Rico. Of course, it isn’t called the “Island of Enchantment” for nothing. That, however, is where many of the similarities between mainland and the island end.
I am a first-generation Philadelphian. My parents came to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico and I keep the island close to my heart every single day. I try to visit as often as I possibly can. And I frequently communicate with family and friends there.
When Hurricane Irma hit the island, causing several deaths and an estimated $1 billion in damage, I joined \other community members to form Unidos Pa’ Puerto Rico to raise funds and collect supplies to support Puerto Ricans.
Though significant, Hurricane Irma was nothing compared to Hurricane Maria, which came only weeks later and truly devastated the island: nearly 3,000 dead and $90 billion in damage. Maria destroyed the entire power grid, leveled thousands of homes, and caused long-term damage to Puerto Rican agriculture and tourism.
After Hurricane Maria, the response from the federal government left me shocked, frustrated and underwhelmed. It made me sad to see so many Puerto Ricans trapped without food or water or electricity.
I was heartened by the work of volunteers and the generosity of donors — in the first eight months after the tragedy, Unidos PA’PR raised more than $400,000 and adopted more than 2,000 families on the island.
We were able to allocate thousands of dollars in resources for support of local businesses and organizations. But, for all our efforts, the broader federal response was simply not there. To this day, Puerto Rico continues to struggle through recovery efforts. In fact, it took until two weeks ago for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to release disaster recovery funds after holding them for months on end.
Though Puerto Ricans are American citizens and able to vote in presidential primaries, their influence over national politics ends there. Citizens of Puerto Rico have no voting power in Congress, which means no input on very important decisions that affect them as American citizens, including appropriation of federal funds.
The Puerto Rican representative in the House of Representatives is nothing more than a figurehead — a “nonvoting resident commissioner of Puerto Rico.”
Even when it comes to legislative matters that concern Puerto Rico specifically, its citizens have no say. Puerto Ricans elect their own governor, Assembly, and Senate, all bodies that are completely separate from the United States Congress and not overseen by any branch of the federal government.
If things continue on this current path, things are unlikely to improve for Puerto Rico. Because Puerto Ricans have no say on electing the president and no voting representation in Congress, Puerto Rico often ends up with the crumbs.
It’s what happened after Hurricane Maria.
I believe that, given all this, it is long past time for statehood for Puerto Rico. It’s time to let the people of Puerto Rico speak out and let their voices be heard on whether they wish to become a state or commonwealth, and shed their territory status.
In 2017, only 23 percent of residents came out to vote in a referendum on the matter — 97 percent of those ballots were cast for statehood, though the election was criticized for being fixed. I believe it is time for Puerto Ricans to hold another vote — a fair vote — and let the wishes of the majority be heard. If the citizens vote for statehood we need to support them.
I applaud Michael Bloomberg for his recently released plan to rebuild Puerto Rico and invest long-term in the island. I know, given his experience as mayor of New York, that Bloomberg has the right plan to get it done.
Outside of Puerto Rico, there is only one city with a larger Puerto Rican population than Philadelphia, and that is New York City. Mike Bloomberg supports full statehood for Puerto Rico. He has a plan to conduct an audit of Puerto Rico’s finances and develop a plan to relieve the government’s debt burdens.
Bloomberg knows the importance of social safety nets like Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits, Social Security, and will provide those same benefits to Puerto Ricans.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Mike Bloomberg has a plan to rebuild Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, invest in its long-term growth, and protect the island from the devastating impacts of climate change through clean energy efforts and more.
Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans were forced to evacuate the island after devastating impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. They left without any personal belongings and many left with little or no money in their pockets. They came to New York and Philadelphia and Miami and many other cities and we welcomed them with open arms.
However, I believe it is time that we make the necessary investments in Puerto Rico to get them back to their homes and reunited with their families.
I worry that we are in danger of losing Puerto Rico forever if we abandon it. I simply cannot bear the thought of that happening. Puerto Ricans have lost too much already, and we need to do everything we can to ensure the long-term survival of our beloved Puerto Rico.
State Rep. Angel Cruz, a Democrat, represents the Philadelphia-based 180th House District. He writes from Harrisburg.