A Category 5 hurricane hit Puerto Rico Sept. 20, leaving much of the island without food, water, power or infrastructure. As of Oct. 18, about 1 million Puerto Ricans are without clean water and the entire island is still without sustainable power. Amid the call for humanitarian aid in the wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans are also calling for one more thing: recognition.
The dependency matters
This is not a question of whether Puerto Rico should become a state. As citizens, this should not matter. However, despite receiving limited federal benefits, Puerto Rico should get full recognition of citizenship. Furthermore, the residents of Puerto Rico should not have to remind the rest of the country that they are American.
As a territory, Puerto Rico is in a governmental limbo that causes a one-sided dependence on the United States. As citizens, they pay federal taxes and can travel freely within the U.S. Though they send a delegate to Congress, they do not have a vote in Congress or in the electorate.
They also cannot file for bankruptcy. The region’s economic crisis–a massive debt the governor declared not payable in 2015–has been unsolvable due to the inaccessibility to request help from the U.S. government because of lack of statehood, or the international community because it is not a sovereign nation. This has lead to the weakening infrastructure and economic woes worsened by Hurricane Maria.
Federally, the U.S. government has the same responsibilities towards Puerto Rico as it does to any other state. This means crises, like hurricanes, fall under the responsibility of the federal government.
A comprehensive survey published on Sept. 26 in The New York Times revealed 54 percent of Americans were not aware Puerto Ricans are also American citizens. Unfortunately, this is not a new finding. Similar polls in 2016 produced almost mirrored results. This has dire results. Over 8 in 10 Americans who know Puerto Ricans are citizens support aid, compared with only 4 in 10 who do not know they are citizens, according to the New York Times survey.
The value placed on American centrism dictates the way everyday American citizens in the mainland view and value the lives of those around them. This is the value placed on roughly 3.5 million citizens who are out of power, water and food, on top of an already crippling financial crisis. This attitudinal shift creates a social punishment based on citizenship status assumption. No one in Texas or Florida is saying “we need aid because we are citizens.” They are saying “we need aid because we are in a crisis.”
It is not only a defining factor, but a characteristic that has to be consistently justified and reaffirmed.
“I hate hearing they have to be called Americans seem important,” said senior fine arts major Vivianne Siqueiros, who studied in Puerto Rico in spring 2016. “They are Americans, but that shouldn’t be the most important characteristic.”
The conclusions here are twofold: first, citizenship status in general should not make a population less deserving of basic humanitarian needs in the face of catastrophe. Second, this shouldn’t even be a concern for those in Puerto Rico.
The rhetoric surrounding citizenship debates is divisive. It creates two groups–citizens and noncitizens–and attributes prioritization based off of the dichotomous bright-line. This separatory rhetoric was perpetrated in the “us vs. them” dialogue of Puerto Rico’s own president–Donald Trump. In a Tweet on Sept. 30., he singled out the mayor of San Juan, criticized her leadership skills, followed by the claim that “they want everything done for them.”
In later tweets, he reminded the public the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal assistance agencies are not permanent and used the crisis as another platform for his remarks against the news media. There was also direct mention to the region’s economic woes as a pre-existing problem and a “debt to Wall Street.” This behavior set Puerto Rico apart because neither a limited timeframe for assistance, economic standings or the media was mentioned with any other domestic crisis. In fact, it was the opposite as he expressed solidarity, tweeting to Texas:
While natural disaster aftermath validated aid to the mainland, for Puerto Rico–again-–citizenship was consistently emphasized. Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Puerto Ricans themselves have had to publicly reaffirm their status in order to justify urgency of the situation. Rosselló emphasized that to avoid a humanitarian crisis, it was important to recognize that they are citizens. The threat of a humanitarian crisis was not perceived as enough, and it should have been. There should not be a worry that less quantity or quality of assistance will be provided due to negligence of citizenship status.