Millions of Americans are being systematically forgotten and mistreated by our government and its leaders on a bipartisan and daily basis, lost and left behind in the latest political controversy or policy squabble.
Imagine if, God forbid, the state of Iowa was hit with two Category 5 storms in the span of a few weeks that would destroy essential infrastructure, cause billions of dollars in damages, and lead to an estimated 3,000 casualties within a year.
Imagine just over two years later, while Iowa is still struggling to recover from those storms and facing a multi-year humanitarian crisis, the state gets jolted by a series of earthquakes, leaving thousands without homes, electricity, and drinking water.
Imagine the current Republican administration delaying, then restricting, billions of dollars in lifesaving aid to Iowa, and the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination never mentioning the state during a two-hour nationally televised debate.
One would have to imagine these scenarios because this would never actually happen to the great state of Iowa — and its population of three million people, six electoral votes, and its first-in-the-nation caucuses. It would be presidential political malfeasance to forget about Iowa, especially in a presidential election year.
Iowa’s two senators and four House representatives would never allow for this to happen. Our social media and 24/7 news environment would hold our national leaders accountable and just as assuredly never allow this to happen.
This should never happen in 2020. Yet it is happening right now to over three million Americans in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s population is roughly the same as that of Iowa. After suffering through two catastrophic hurricanes in 2017 that caused great destruction, Puerto Rico has recently faced an onslaught of earthquakes that further damaged an already devastated island.
The Trump administration recently released a much-delayed and much-needed $16 billion of disaster relief and prevention aid package to Puerto Rico. However, the money came with a number of restrictions, including a bar from any amount being spent on the electric grid, despite years of rolling blackouts on the island. The funds were released after much public outcry and a series of earthquakes that crippled the island’s already damaged infrastructure.
On the other side of the aisle, the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination recently held a nationally televised debate, where over the course of two hours and the discussion of numerous topics, the plight of Puerto Rico was never mentioned once.
This is not to suggest that both sides of the political spectrum bear equal blame for inattention and inaction toward Puerto Rico at the national level. Rather, this is to suggest that too often, Puerto Rico is readily forgotten by our national leaders on a bipartisan basis.
Puerto Rican Americans serve our country in all levels of government. They are civil servants and enlisted soldiers, congressional representatives and Senate staffers, assistant U.S. attorneys and a United States Supreme Court Justice. Yet for all that they give and sacrifice for our country, the Americans of Puerto Rico are so often ignored because they reside in a territory, not a state.
American territories like Puerto Rico possess a second-rate political status relative to states. Puerto Rico does not have any U.S. senators, voting House representatives, or electors in the Electoral College, despite being more populated than 21 states. They are subject to American laws and regulations with little to no say over them. They fight and die on behalf of our country, but have no right to vote for their commander in chief.
Our national leaders can do better by Puerto Rico and its people. We can remember them, account for them, and protect them like we do Iowans, Pennsylvanians, Californians, Floridians, and the citizens of all our states through our politics and policies. We can start by publicly acknowledging the serious problems facing Puerto Rico on the floors of power in Washington, D.C., as well as on the floor of a national debate stage. The Democratic Party should hold a debate or forum for its leading presidential candidates on the island to bring national attention to the issues facing Puerto Rico. We can and should provide much-needed funding, expertise, and other governmental support as quickly as possible to the island as we would if a humanitarian crisis was occurring in any of our 50 states.
We can and should do better by the people of Puerto Rico, if for no other reason than the simple fact that they are our fellow Americans. And lest we need a cold political reason for doing better, we should remember that over a million former residents of Puerto Rico now live in Florida, a state with 29 votes in the Electoral College.