As people march for Puerto Rico, which politicians stand up in defense of our island citizens?

One of the members of the U.S. Senate who has stepped up to the plate for Puerto Rico and the USVI is Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy. Murphy has been a senator since Jan. 3, 2013, and before that was a member of the House since 2007. Murphy has exhibited leadership in the Senate on the post Irma/Maria crisis, and an understanding of both his Puerto Rican constituents and Puerto Rican history.
When people think of Puerto Ricans here on the mainland they tend to automatically think New York or Florida. That makes sense, since those are the two states with the most “Diasporicans.” Even less visible are people with roots in the USVI.
I became aware of Puerto Ricans in Connecticut in the late ‘60s early ‘70s, as the Young Lords Party expanded to New Haven and Bridgeport.

In 1970, a Bridgeport organization called Spanish People in Command joined with the Young Lords to form the local YLP branch, the group’s fifth. There were approximately 15,000 Puerto Ricans in Bridgeport at the time, roughly ten percent of the city’s population. The YLP underscored the significance of the move in its bilingual newspaper Pa’lante, noting that the establishment of the Bridgeport branch “was very important because it was the first time the Party opened in a small, working class city.”

One of the Bridgeport branch’s first projects was the establishment of a Free Breakfast for Children program at St. Mary’s Church on Pembroke Street. Patterned on similar efforts by the Black Panthers (who also had a chapter in Bridgeport), children were provided free breakfast before school. In addition, the Lords helped launch a tenants association and rent strike at 381-387-393 East Main Street in December, 1970 when tenants were forced to endure five consecutive freezing days and nights without heat. It was also at that site that the branch opened its local office.

Since that time the numbers have grown. Five cities in Connecticut are on the list of the top 25 mainland communities with the largest Puerto Rican populations:

Hartford, CT – 41,995, Bridgeport, CT – 31,881,  Waterbury, CT – 24,947,  New Britain, CT – 21,914,  New Haven, CT – 20,505

Five Connecticut cities are also on the list of the top 25 communities on the mainland with the highest percentage of Puerto Ricans

Hartford, CT – 33.66%, New Britain, CT – 29.93%, Windham, CT – 23.99%, Waterbury, CT – 22.60%, Bridgeport, CT – 22.10%

For a more in-depth analysis you can take a look at the demographic data from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies on Connecticut Puerto Ricans:

In 2014, Connecticut was the 6th state with most Puerto Ricans (301,182) in the United States. In 2014, the Puerto Rican population in Connecticut was 8.4% of the total state population. This is an increase from years 2000 (5.7%) and 2010 (7.1%).

This speech, delivered by Sen. Murphy on the floor of the Senate, should not only be applauded: it is a template for what other elected officials should be fighting for.

“The United States has been screwing Puerto Rico for over a hundred years, and this is just the latest most disgusting chapter,” Murphy said.

Full text of Murphy’s remarks here, with an excerpt below:

The lackluster response from the Trump administration is an outrage. It’s been more than a month since the hurricane, and eighty percent of the island’s electricity is still out. Roads and bridges have collapsed, homes have been destroyed. Of the sixty-seven hospitals that are open, less than half of them are operating with electricity. Families are searching far and wide for clean drinking water. Some have been drinking water from wells at a Superfund site.

This kind of inhumane response would never, ever be permitted in a U.S. state. But one doesn’t even have to look to other states to evaluate this response; we can look abroad. Within two weeks of the earthquake in Haiti, there were 17,000 U.S. military personnel on the ground in the country. Two weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall in the United States, the United States had deployed only 10,000 troops to respond to the disaster in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

News broke yesterday that the state-owned electric company on the island, PREPA, refused to operationalize mutual aid agreements with electric companies on the U.S. mainland—that’s a standard step in normal disaster response.  Now fault lies with PREPA but how on earth did FEMA and the Trump Administration allow for that to happen, leaving millions of Puerto Ricans in the dark and in danger for over a month? It’s beyond comprehension and it speaks to the failure of the U.S. government response.

But Madam President, the truth is that Hurricane Maria exposed far more than just immediate physical damage. The hurricane also laid bare a very simple truth that is plain to every resident of the island and every Puerto Rican living in my state. That truth is this: the United States has been screwing Puerto Rico for over a hundred years, and this is just the latest, most disgusting chapter.

There is an undercurrent in the discourse about Puerto Rico that is as pernicious as it is ahistorical. You’ll hear people, like President Trump, say that Puerto Ricans are wholly responsible for the financial mess they find themselves in and Puerto Rico should just pull itself up by its bootstraps. This rewriting of history ignores the fact that the federal government and Congress—we’ve had our hands tightly wrapped around those very bootstraps since 1898.  

The United States acquired Puerto Rico from Spain through the Treaty of Paris in 1898, when the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans didn’t ask to be part of the United States. We acquired the island. A century ago, the Congress extended U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, and in 1950, Congress recognized the island’s limited authority over internal governance and Puerto Rico became formally known as the “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”

But being a commonwealth or a territory is permanent second class status. Without access to the same health care reimbursement and the same infrastructure funding and education dollars as other states, Puerto Rico starts every race fifty feet back from the rest of America. These built-in disadvantages are designed to hold Puerto Rico back. They have been in place for a hundred years to keep Puerto Rico from being a true economic competitor with the mainland.

And believe me, the Puerto Rican people have done everything they can to overcome this discriminatory treatment.  There is an entrepreneurial, never-say-die spirit in Puerto Rico. I know this because no state has a greater percentage of its residents with Puerto Rican roots than Connecticut. 

But despite the strength of the Puerto Rican people, they’re stuck, because Washington has tied their hands behind their backs, by taking away the right to vote in federal elections, virtually guaranteeing Puerto Rico’s economic disadvantage will never, ever be remedied. It’s a black hole from which Puerto Rico, and the four other U.S. territories, can never escape.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, despite the fact that recent polling suggests that half of Americans don’t know this. But they can’t vote for President, they have no voting representation in Congress. Think about it this way – Americans with a mainland address can vote if they move to Mongolia or Sierra Leone, but if they temporarily take up residence in a U.S. territory like Puerto Rico, they miraculously lose their right to vote.

Murphy, along with Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Dianne Feinstein of California, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Al Franken of Minnesota, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, and Bill Nelson of Floria, have also challenged the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to work in coordination to provide housing assistance to residents of the islands who are still displaced.

The federal government’s responses to previous disasters of similar scale should be instructive. To address temporary housing needs in the wake of Katrina, the Bush Administration initially chose to provide some displaced families with trailers, cash grants, and short-term stays in hotels and motels—solutions that proved inadequate to meet the needs of affected residents. Months later, the Bush Administration conducted a comprehensive review of the federal government’s response to the disaster, identifying lessons learned and furnishing recommendations on how the federal government should respond to future disasters. One of those recommendations was closer coordination between FEMA and HUD.[1] It is crucial for the agency and the department to heed this essential recommendation, especially given the scope of the devastation in Puerto Rico and USVI.

As part of that coordination, we encourage you to consider establishing a disaster housing assistance program (DHAP). Such a program would allow the federal government to leverage its relationships with housing agencies across the country to help respond to the crisis. It would also facilitate improved data sharing among FEMA, HUD, public housing authorities, and other housing providers in the states to expedite temporary and long-term assistance for low-income households. Ultimately, the policies that the department and the agency consider must be informed by federal and local coordination, including: a combination of FEMA’s disaster assessments, data provided by the governments of Puerto Rico and USVI, and the needs of citizens on the islands.

We are prepared to work with you to provide additional resources for unmet needs and to work to ensure that assistance is deployed effectively to help families on the islands. To that end, we request prompt answers to the following questions:

1. What resources are available for the people of Puerto Rico and USVI today to quickly and properly house displaced persons—both for people on the islands and for those who have evacuated to the mainland? 

2. How many HUD-assisted households were impacted by Irma and Maria, and to what extent—if any—is FEMA coordinating with HUD to ensure that displaced persons in Puerto Rico and USVI are quickly and properly housed?

3. What are your deadlines for coming up with temporary medium- and long-term housing solutions for the people of Puerto Rico and USVI? 

4. Given the initial damage assessments of public housing infrastructure, single-family homes, and rental units for Puerto Rico’s and USVI’s lowest-income residents, what are some options available to the people of Puerto Rico and USVI, housing authorities in Puerto Rico and USVI, and housing authorities and organizations in diaspora states to meet the additional needs of displaced families?

5. Have you identified any data sharing gaps that must be addressed in order for federal disaster benefits to flow efficiently to Puerto Rican and USVI families in need of housing in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma? If so, what is required to improve data sharing at the federal and local levels?

Though I am not one of his constituents, I have written to Chris Murphy to thank him. I am doing the same for others on the list.

This piece spotlights Murphy, which in no way means to diminish the efforts being made by other elected officials like my own New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He has been engaged since Irma, and is still responding. He just sent more utility workers and vehicles to Puerto Rico

But let us not forget the obstructionists, like the Shameful 69.

Legislation to provide $36.5 billion in aid for communities affected by recent wildfires and hurricanes, including Puerto Rico, secured widespread support in the House on Thursday save for 69 Republicans.

The votes in opposition included many members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who believe government spending should not add to the deficit.

I have to grimace when I see a mention of the deficit, when these same hypocrites are willing to explode it with their tax attacks.

As a reminder, here is the full list of representatives that voted against disaster relief for United States citizens. 

Justin Amash (R-Michigan) 

Jim Banks (R-Indiana)
Andy Burr (R-Kentucky)
Joe Barton (R-Texas)
Jack Bergman (R-Michigan)
Andy Biggs (R-Arizona)
Mike Bishop (R-Michigan)
Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee)
Rod Blum (R-Iowa)
Dave Brat (R-Virginia)
Mo Brooks (R-Alabama)
Ken Buck (R-Colorado)
Ted Budd (R-North Carolina)
Steve Chabot (R-Ohio)
James Comer (R-Kentucky)
Warren Davidson (R-Ohio)
Scott DesJarlais (R-Tennessee)
Sean Duffy (R-Wisconsin)
Jeff Duncan (R-South Carolina)
John Duncan (R-Tennessee)
Tom Emmer (R-Minnesota)
Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina)
Trent Franks (R-Arizona)
Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin)
Thomas Garret (R-Virginia)
Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio)
Louie Gohmert (R-Texas)
Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia)
Paul Gosar (R-Arizona)
Morgan Griffith (R-Virginia)
Andy Harris (R-Maryland)
Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas)
Jody Hice (R-Georgia)
French Hill (R-Arkansas)
George Holding (R-North Carolina)
Richard Hudson (R-North Carolina)
Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana)
Walter Jones (R-North Carolina)
Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)
Trent Kelly (R-Mississippi)
David Kustoff (R-Texas)
Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado)
Jason Lewis (R-Minnesota)
Barry Loudermilk (R-Georgia)
Kenny Marchant (R-Texas)
Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky)
Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina)
Luke Messer (R-Indiana)
Alex Mooney (R-West Virginia)
Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma)
Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota)
Ralph Norman (R-South Carolina)
Gary Palmer (R-Alabama)
Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico)
Scott Perry (R-Pennsylvania)
Robert Pittenger (R-North Carolina)
John Ratcliffe (R-Texas)
Todd Rokita (R-Indiana)
Keith Rothfus (R-Pennsylvania)
David Rouzer (R-North Carolina)
Mark Sanford (R-South Carolina)
David Schweikert (R-Arizona)
Jamex Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin)
Jason Smith (R-Missouri)
Chris Stewart (R-Utah)
Mark Walker (R-North Carolina)
Jackie Walorski (R-Indiana)
Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio)
Roger Williams (R-Texas)

Please join me today to discuss and develop a Puerto Rico/USVI report card for your elected officials: what are they doing to either help or hinder the recovery process on the islands, and the provision of aid for those island residents who have fled here to the mainland?

Don’t forget to support Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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