Second Class Citizenship for Puerto Rico?

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By Gabriela Melendez Olivera   

Over tweets this weekend, President Trump confirmed that his administration’s underwhelming response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico is a symptom of these American citizens’ second-class status. Trump resorted to the racial stereotype that people of color “want everything to be done for them.” But this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. Boricuas on the island and the mainland have rallied to help each other in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

My family and friends are giving back since they were one of the few lucky ones. They’re all safe. My parent’s house flooded, but there was no structural or heavy damage. They have enough food and power — for now — thanks to a generator (until the gas runs out).

I didn’t have to wait a week to hear their voice or get a message from them saying they were okay like so many of the more than 4 million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland. But this is not the case for most of the 3.5 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico. Drinking water, electric power, gasoline, and cash are in short supply. Hundreds of thousands lost everything. And now Congress is responsible for the lives of these American citizens.

From the moment they take their oath and put on that congressional lapel pin, every representative and senator becomes responsible for the people of Puerto Rico. That’s because the Supreme Court determined in the Insular Cases that Congress owns Puerto Rico — a spoil of the Spanish-American War. It’s a fact that is heavily disputed by some, but a fact nonetheless.

The Supreme Court cases came to an unjust conclusion: that the U.S. could rule over certain people without granting them the full constitutional rights enjoyed by their brothers and sisters across the ocean. One example of this absurd ruling is the fact that even though Puerto Ricans are American citizens who can vote in presidential elections if they live in one of the 50 states, they do not have the right to vote on the island. We’re talking about discrimination based solely on where some Americans choose to live.

More like “liberty and justice for some,” right?

The Insular Cases essentially rendered the American citizens living in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories second-class citizens. The Supreme Court’s decisions are now rightly seen as racist and archaic by many legal scholars. Because, let’s face it, the Supreme Court wouldn’t have decided that only some fundamental rights apply to U.S. territories like Puerto Rico if it were an island populated by white people. One of the lead decisions from Justice Henry Billings Brown detailed how it would be difficult to assimilate these “alien races” through “Anglo-Saxon principles.”

However outdated and wrong, it is current constitutional law nonetheless. And until this changes, Congress needs to take care of its constituents in Puerto Rico and give them a shot at recovery with fair and equitable emergency relief aid. The Trump administration and Congress’ lack of adequate action to provide aid to the island is a modern-day reflection of that second-class status.

Because, of course, second-class citizens get second-class aid.

Gabriela Melendez Olivera is the Political Communications Manager for the ACLU



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23 thoughts on “Second Class Citizenship for Puerto Rico?”

  1. Tia Will

    I really appreciate your posting this article. There were a number of points made that helped clarify for me why so many were claiming that there was a racial/cultural component instead of just a matter of logistics or incompetency. Nothing brought this point home for me like:

    One of the lead decisions from Justice Henry Billings Brown detailed how it would be difficult to assimilate these “alien races” through “Anglo-Saxon principles.”

    While I agree that the charge of “racism” is sometimes used too freely. This would appear not to be one of those times.

     

    1. Keith O

      While I agree that the charge of “racism” is sometimes used too freely. This would appear not to be one of those times.

      How so?  The response to Hurricane Maria is racist because of some statement that a judge made over a hundred years ago?  Really?

      This once again does appear that’s it’s just yet another time that liberals freely play the race card.

      1. David Greenwald

        It doesn’t seem like Puerto Rico is getting the same level of assistance. Moreover I’ve never seen a president, even in the face of criticism (and there was plenty in Katrina) actually insult leaders of a local government in need of disaster relief. Maybe you think that’s okay and will justify it, but I don’t.

          1. David Greenwald

            The question is would the hurricane’s response have been different in a different location? I think the answer is yes even granting logistical details.

            The second question is whether race plays a factor in that response? I assume you would answer no, but I’m not so sure about that.

            The third question is whether the president’s response to criticism is acceptable and I think here we all agree that it’s not.

          1. David Greenwald

            I don’t think they do. I think the accuracy of some of the accusations is in the eye of the beholder.

        1. Keith O

           I think the accuracy of some of the accusations is in the eye of the beholder.

          So true, but try and stick to facts and not putting words in Trump’s mouth and meanings into things he does based on ideology.

      2. Richard C

        I’ve never seen a president, even in the face of criticism (and there was plenty in Katrina) actually insult leaders of a local government in need of disaster relief.

        That video of the President tossing out rolls of paper towels seemed a bit insulting.  Can you imaging having lost your house and all your possessions and living without electricity or running water and then having someone toss you a roll of paper towels as if that makes everything OK?

          1. David Greenwald

            You’re half-heartedly defending something that’s not defensible at all. It was a stupid thing to do and it plays into people’s beliefs about his racial views.

      3. Tia Will

        The statement the judge made over a year ago is what established the thought process behind the decision to handle citizenship/rights issues for citizens of Puerto Rico to begin with which continue to have implications ( voting status) to this day. Please note that you would appear to be playing your “what a liberal must think” card, since no where did I make any comment specifically about 45.

  2. Keith O

     Trump resorted to the racial stereotype that people of color “want everything to be done for them.”

     

    Trump never said that, the author here is projecting her own politics into what he actually stated.

    Here’s Trump’s actual statement:

     

    …want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.

  3. Alan Miller

    I can’t possibly know if the island is being well taken care of or not.  And the writing here conflating a recent hurricane with an old supreme court decision is beyond poorly crafted.

    However, the argument that American Citizens in territories should have the vote is compelling, including the argument that there may be racial bias in the decision.  I’d like to here the other side of the argument (not just the racist part of it — all of it).

  4. Eric Gelber

    Trump never said that …

    Trump said that and more. Dismissing Trump’s statements and actions as merely “bad PR moves” excuses the inexcusable.  “They want everything done for them” was preceded by the attack on the San Juan mayor “and others” who, he claimed, “are not able to get their workers to help,” thereby slandering not only those officials but also Puerto Ricans, in general.  Tossing paper towels, like t-shirts at a sporting event, was insulting. Would he have done the same in Houston or Florida? No. Contrasting the Puerto Rican devastation to “a real catastrophe like Katrina” is more than tone deaf.

    Trump has a long history of racial stereotyping and blatantly racist comments and practices, which don’t need to be repeated here. No one should be surprised at his attitude toward Puerto Ricans as second class citizens. And no one should excuse or minimize it as simply Trump being Trump.

  5. Tia Will

    He didn’t say what the article is trying to imply that he did.”

    He absolutely did say the words “want everything done for them”. You even quoted them. True they are surrounded by more words that you seem to think changes the meaning. I am willing to take him at the meaning of the words spoken.

    And as for putting words in people’s mouths:

    The response to Hurricane Maria is racist because of some statement that a judge made over a hundred years ago?  Really?

    I said absolutely nothing about a racist response to Hurricane Maria. Re read my post. I believe that racist attitudes have set up the circumstances that create the increased vulnerability of this population while depriving them of the right to vote for national leaders. Do you dispute racism played a role there ?

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