A lot of Americans don't know — or at least didn't know until they met a Category 4 hurricane named Maria — that 3.4 million people living in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. Far fewer know about the arguably underhanded way this all went down.
More than 100 years ago, in March 1917, Congress and President Woodrow Wilson enacted the Jones-Shafroth Act which granted full U.S. citizenship to anyone born on the island beginning in 1898, the year America claimed the Caribbean island in the Spanish-American War. That meant young Puerto Rican men could enlist in the U.S. military — although, not surprisingly, few did.
What Wilson didn't say in signing the measure was that he was already moving to enter the United States in World War I — the declaration came one month later — and that he was instituting a military draft which, of course, now included the 18- and 19-year-old American citizens in Puerto Rico. Ultimately, an estimated 18,000 island natives fought "Over There" in Europe, risking and sometimes sacrificing their lives for a nation they barely knew, whose language many of them did not speak.
That episode manages to sum up the century-old, incredibly complicated relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland — a relationship that shows that "second-class citizenship" isn't always just a cliche, and that is now facing its greatest test amid the post-hurricane ruins.
As most people who are not named President Donald John Trump are aware, Puerto Rico is in extremely dire straights now. The 130 m.p.h. gusts of Maria — the strongest tropical storm to make a direct hit on the island since 1932 — shredded the power grid, which was already suffering from decades of poverty and a Wall Street-addled fiscal crisis, raising the prospect that an area similar in population to Philadelphia and its immediate suburbs won't have electricity for months. Streets are still flooded from the massive storm surge, and much of the island's lush green vegetation is in ruins. So is 80 percent of Puerto Rico's farmland, raising the specter of long-term food shortages. The island's governor told American TV viewers Monday night that perhaps 60 percent of citizens lack potable water.
Meanwhile, a record heat wave has descended on the island, testing the elderly and the infirm. Desperation is clearly mounting in isolated towns lacking life's fundamentals. "They are not giving us anything, not even hope," 43-year-old Cannabis Angel Nebot, told the New York Times, speaking from a coastal town where residents are trying to collect rainwater in the absence of trucks delivering bottled water. "At least come around and give us hope, even if it's a lie."
Arguably, what Trump and the U.S. Congress have done so far is worse than that low bar.
The president spent most of the weekend on Twitter, seeking to rile up his political base against black athletes who protest for social justice, needlessly ratcheting up tensions with a nuclear North Korea, and reacting to "fake news" on the Fox News Channel — suggesting that what he's not doing is holding urgent meetings on how to address the biggest humanitarian crisis of his presidency so far. When he did finally tweet about Puerto Rico on Monday night, he did so with all the apparent empathy of a deer tick — reminding the island's starving people that they need to pay back his friends on Wall Street.
And yet the grossly insensitive tweets could almost be tolerated if the massive federal bureaucracy — which should be able to function even with this dotard at the control panel — were responding adequately to the crisis. So far, it's not. FEMA and the National Guard are present, but the nation needs to kick this up several notches, to reopen airspace for supply missions and deploy aircraft carriers (as was done in Katrina) and other assets of the world's most powerful military. Meanwhile, the administration says it plans to submit a request for a Puerto Rican aid package sometime in mid-October. No rush, apparently. The U.S. Senate is spending most of its time on a (thankfully) futile effort to take health insurance away from 32 million Americans while Puerto Ricans are sticking out their tongues trying to catch a few raindrops. For once, the cliche is actually right on the money: This is Trump's Katrina.
"These 3.4 million American people are U.S. citizens, and yet they have not received the same attention as Florida and Texas, and the president's tweets did not help," Philadelphia Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who was born on the island before moving to Hunting Park as a child, told me Tuesday morning. Like many in the local Puerto Rican community, Quiñones-Sánchez is growing angry at both the lackadaisical response from Washington and the banks-first, people-later attitude from Trump.
"He needs to go there," the councilwoman said, minutes before the White House announced that Trump will travel there next week. Meanwhile, Quiñones-Sánchez, like most of the 5.1 million Puerto Ricans who live on the U.S. mainland, has struggled to connect with her family members. Most have been reached and are OK — so far, about 16 deaths have been reported — but she said partial restoration of phone service on Monday has meant that local Puerto Ricans are now learning of the deprivation on the island, triggering a new wave of anxiety.
It shouldn't be this way. America needs a laserlike focus on an all-out humanitarian intervention, and when life is finally stabilized, we need to make sure our brothers and sisters on Puerto Rico are treated like full-fledged citizens, and not serfs in a 19th-century-style colony. Indeed, the United Nations has repeatedly lambasted the United States over the years for its archaic colonial rule of the island — an idea that doesn't seem to register in a place where people didn't even know Puerto Ricans are citizens.
It's complicated. There are some advantages to the current arrangement — for the 5.1 million of the island's diaspora who were able to use their American passports to move to the mainland and, in many cases, escape crushing poverty, and also on April 15, as under the current bizarre hodgepodge of laws, Puerto Ricans do not pay federal income tax. But the island's residents get an even rawer deal on health care than mainlanders do, with a grossly unfair funding formula for Medicare and Medicaid that has created a multibillion-dollar shortfall. And it gets worse: Remember the 1917 law that made Puerto Ricans citizens? It also restricted the island from international trade, all but mandating that goods arrive only on American ships — thus hammering its economy in an era of globalization.
It all came to a head in the fiscal crisis in which the board overseeing Puerto Rico's recovery is larded with representatives from Wall Street, not the island's citizens, and which is causing even higher taxes and other austerity hardships to make sure that hedge-fund millionaires and billionaires who speculated on the island's debts get their money back — the whip that Trump and other Republicans continue to crack. Now, 3.4 million Americans are pleading for their lives to a president they were not allowed to vote for and praying for an aid package from a Congress where they are denied representation. That's a human rights abuse about which we on the mainland should no longer remain silent.