Contending that Puerto Rico's $73 billion debt creates a humanitarian crisis for the United States, "Pennsylvania for Puerto Rico," a new coalition of local leaders, is urging Congress to rescue the island commonwealth, where half the population lives in poverty.
Puerto Rico was claimed by the U.S. after the Spanish-American War. Since the early 20th century, its people are U.S. citizens from birth. Five million live in the United States, 3.7 million on the Caribbean island. Only those living in the U.S. proper are eligible to vote in national elections.
"There are five million of us," 800,000 in Pennsylvania alone, said Angel Ortiz, a former Philadelphia city councilman, who was born in Puerto Rico. "We are up for grabs."
"We belong to the United States of America," said State Rep. Angel Cruz (D., Phila). "Why are we being treated like we don't exist?"
Speaking at Taller Puertorriqueño, a cultural center that calls itself "the heart of the barrio" in North Philadelphia, Ortiz and Cruz were joined Monday by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Nilda Ruiz, director of Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, a multiservice center. The group promoted its hashtag, #PA4PR.
"Let's be clear about how Puerto Rico got here - tax policies established by the United States," said Sánchez.
The advocates, including four busloads from Philadelphia, are to head to Washington to lobby Congress Wednesday as part of a national day of action, which will include demonstrations on Wall Street. Sánchez said they are to ask for legislation to enact three changes:
The ability for Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy and restructure its fiscal debt.
Parity for Medicare reimbursements. Puerto Ricans pay the same Medicare taxes as other Americans, but the federal reimbursement is capped at 50 percent of the 50 states' rate.
Extension of the earned-income tax credit, to help stimulate Puerto Rico's economy.
With some creditors calling for more austerity, Puerto Rico recently imposed a 11.25 percent sales tax. But it is expected to run out of money by year's end.
"Puerto Rico will not be able to pay its debt," said Ortiz. "It will have to lay off teachers. It will have to eliminate pensions."
Sánchez emphasized that Puerto Rico's fate has a ripple effect locally.
"Puerto Rico is one of the top 10 consumers of Pennsylvania goods, leading to 12,000 Pennsylvania jobs," she said. "There is a direct correlation between the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico and everyone's backyard."
Recalling the U.S. debt crisis of 2008, during which the Treasury Department saved banks from failing, Ortiz said a similar response is needed.
"The Treasury secretary should be able to sit down with all of Wall Street," he said. "They did not let Citi fail. They did not let all these other banks fail. They cannot let Puerto Rico fail."
Although Puerto Ricans pay no personal federal income tax on money earned on the island, the sour economy has been driving an accelerating migration to the mainland, accounting for a loss to the island of nearly 50,000 people since 2005.