By Janet Murguía, President and CEO, NCLR
“We feel like we are a forgotten people in a forgotten land.” Those were the poignant and sadly accurate words of a small business owner to a New York Times reporter back in July about the dire economic conditions on the island of Puerto Rico. It has been said that when the U.S. economy catches a cold, Puerto Rico gets pneumonia. For the last decade, the island has been mired in a recession and fiscal crunch, which led Puerto Rico’s governor to announce this summer that the island is running out of money and would likely be unable to pay its $73 billion debt by the end of the year. Critically, the economic challenges facing the island are leading to a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportion for the 3.5 million American citizens who live there.
Puerto Rico has shed more than a quarter of a million jobs in recent years, the unemployment rate is currently twice that of the national rate, and nearly half of the population lives in poverty. The result is that during a time of unprecedented growth in the Latino community, the island is one of the few places in which the Hispanic population has shrunk. In fact, for the first time in history according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, there are more Puerto Ricans living on the mainland than on the island—a consequence of hundreds of thousands of people leaving in search of the success and stability that eludes them at home. In the next few months, the government of Puerto Rico will be making massive cuts in services that will cost thousands their jobs, cripple public transportation, close even more schools than the hundreds that have already gone under, and likely end health care for millions of residents on the island, putting all families there—especially the poorest and most vulnerable—in peril.
The repercussions of this crisis also resonate far from the island as well—in the communities, like Orlando, which are absorbing migrants from Puerto Rico; and with the organizations helping these new residents, often without dedicated resources, as I have heard from NCLR community-based Affiliate partners in Pennsylvania and New York. Yet outside of the Puerto Rican community both on the island and on the mainland, few of our fellow Americans are aware of what is happening. Our government is reacting with a decided lack of urgency. That has to change.
These “forgotten people” are American citizens. Many are veterans of our Armed Forces or part of the families who supported them. Since the First World War, more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served our country in every conflict the United States has been in and there are more than 10,000 serving right now in the military—a disproportionately high participation rate. They are also part of the larger Latino community, especially along the east coast, but increasingly in states like Texas and Ohio. That is why NCLR has been meeting with the administration, members of Congress, and Puerto Rican sister organizations here on the mainland to urge immediate action from Washington.
Specifically, on behalf of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico, we are urging swift and robust action on the part of the federal government, especially from Congress. Puerto Rico cannot solve this crisis on its own and that is by design—Congress’s design. By law, Puerto Rico cannot avail itself of bankruptcy laws like other U.S. states and it cannot appeal to international financial institutions like other countries. Congress made these rules and it is now time for Congress to abide by them. Continuing to ignore and neglect this crisis is not an option, and Congress has a legal and moral obligation to its fellow citizens in Puerto Rico to stop shirking its responsibility.
The Obama administration took some important steps last week in the plan the Treasury Department released, like extending needed tax credits, expanding access to Medicaid, and calling for bankruptcy reform. But we are on the brink of a humanitarian crisis: workers who do not get paid cannot provide for their families; children will lose educational time if schools close; and patients will surely suffer with cuts to health care.
The exodus of families from Puerto Rico started at least three years ago. We have watched as our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico have borne the brunt of austerity measures. We have witnessed parents making the choice to separate so that they can find work to support their children. Florida sees these families. Puerto Rican leaders see these families. NCLR sees these families. But Congress has turned a blind eye, choosing to let these families suffer.
NCLR joins the voices of concerned and responsible Americans in calling for Congress to open its eyes to the humanitarian crisis at our doorstep. It’s time to act. Give Puerto Rico the opportunity, the ability, and the essential policy changes to resolve this crisis. Show our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico that they are not forgotten.