Statehood vs. Disaster Support?

Some people — including supporters of statehood for Puerto Rico — worry that continuing to talk about statehood while waiting for Congress to settle the question of federal disaster support for Puerto Rico will distract the government.

A disaster aid bill is currently stuck in the Senate. It provides additional nutrition funding for Puerto Rico, but it doesn’t take any action on getting already-allocated funds to Puerto Rico, and it doesn’t increase disaster funding for the Island. Senate Democrats want to mirror the House disaster relief bill, which did both those things, but Republicans don’t agree.

An article in The Hill claims that Puerto Rico is the “sticking point” in the discussions.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said, “We don’t just say we’ll give food stamps to some but complete disaster relief to others. That’s wrong, and that hurts American citizens in Puerto Rico and elsewhere.”

While President Trump recently claimed that Puerto Rico had received $91 billion in disaster aid, that figure was in fact the estimate of the damage in Puerto Rico. The Island has actually received about $11 billion in disaster relief funding. Puerto Rico is still struggling to rebuild from the hurricanes, and needs additional funding.

Are statehood and disaster relief separate?

States get more than territories when it comes to disaster relief. The affected states have received more than Puerto Rico in disaster relief for Hurricane Maria.

Why is there a difference? States have two senators and a handful of voting representatives in the House. They have voters who will choose whether to vote for the president. Puerto Rico, as a territory, has none of these things. Naturally, states have more political influence than territories.

This isn’t ingratitude or an emotional position. It’s just a statement of fact. People with votes have a lot more influence than people without votes.

States also have rights. Every state is equal to every other state. Territories are not legally equal to states. Even though Puerto Rico is inhabited by U.S. citizens, U.S. laws allow Congress to treat Puerto Rico differently from states.

As a state, Puerto Rico will be in a much stronger position in future disasters. The Island will be able to rebuild stronger and have the kind of infrastructure needed to withstand the increasingly powerful hurricanes expected in the future.

Is statehood a distraction?

Puerto Rico probably will not achieve statehood before Congress passes a disaster aid bill. Statehood won’t be able to help Puerto Rico in the short term, even though history shows that statehood consistently leads to prosperity. But some leaders worry that bringing statehood up in Congress will distract legislators while they’re still working on the aid bill.

Senator Marco Rubio, a longtime supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico, said as much. “What I would like is to avoid a defeat. That would be regrettable because then people are going to say, ‘that was already voted in the Senate’ and unfortunately many of the people who would vote against still do not understand the issue,” Rubio said. “Even after the hurricane I have colleagues who do not understand, it is not that they think that Puerto Rico is not part of the US, but in some cases until recently did not understand that the Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States. That’s unbelievable, but it is like that. I would never want an unnecessary defeat.”

He told the Puerto Rico newspaper El Nuevo Dia, “I have to choose the subject, and right now I have to tell them about the hurricane. I cannot talk to them about two things at once.”

But other leaders point out that Congress is now much more aware of Puerto Rico than they have been in the past. Many members of Congress have visited Puerto Rico recently, and many recognize that Puerto Rico is a territory that wants statehood.

Rep. Raul Grijalva acknowledged after his recent visit to Puerto Rico that the majority of the people want statehood. But he also believes that his fellow legislators will not be able to concentrate on statehood until the question of disaster aid is settled.

Puerto Rico has been in the headlines before

Puerto Rico has gotten the attention of the U.S. before, and has then lost it. In 2017, polls showed that fewer than half of Americans in the states realized that Puerto Rico’s residents are U.S. citizens. As Puerto Rico rebuilds and the news cycle moves on, it is essential that statehood stays top of mind for Congress. Contact your legislators.

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