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As the federal government fails the people of Puerto Rico, local governments and states must step up

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In Puerto Rico, almost a year after Hurricane Maria, blackouts continue, blue tarps remain the only line of defense for thousands of houses, and too many families are still struggling to put food and water on their tables.

The response from the federal government to Hurricane María has been shamefully inadequate and shows a clear disregard for the people living in the island. Out of desperation, thousands of displaced families have turned to the mainland to resettle. In Florida, New York, Connecticut, and other states, they are living with friends, families, or in hotels hoping to get adequate resources to get back on track. 

{mosads}Puerto Ricans resettling on the mainland need jobs, schools, housing, health care and other forms of assistance to rebuild their lives. Knowing many of those families could be here to stay for years to come, cities and states must step up and support policies to meet the needs of those arriving to the mainland.

Yet, despite taking steps to support relocated families, states, cities and counties where Puerto Ricans are arriving are lagging behind.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott authorized state agencies to provide more flexibility to those seeking professional licenses to work locally, making it easier for Puerto Ricans to find work. Yet Gov. Scott has also underfunded the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a fund that would have provided the resources necessary for displaced families to relocate from hotels into affordable housing.

In New York: Gov. Cuomo just announced $2 million to support 11,000 Puerto Ricans with housing, jobs and health care. It is a good first step, but he is also refusing to give back campaign contributions from the same Puerto Rico bond holders and hedge funds driving the austerity measures that are hurting families on the island – and accelerating the exodus of Puerto Ricans to his state.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy has put together a Commission on Puerto Rico relief that has provided recommendations on supporting refugees, but the support has yet to materialize.

Understanding that Puerto Rico is not ready, and that another hurricane is just around the corner, many families are depending on states to help provide them stability.

On the island, government recovery efforts have been scarce and red tape has delayed the distribution of much-needed resources to allow Puerto Ricans to rebuild their lives in the states and on the island.

So many doctors have left the island that a regular cold can turn into a life or death situation.

Given the likelihood that even more Puerto Ricans will resettle on the mainland the Center for Popular Democracy and Local Progress have published a policy guide, the first of its kind, offering a roadmap for cities and states to address the immediate needs of their new constituents.

The core recommendations include offering aid as soon as new arrivals set foot at ports of entry. This would mean that agencies should develop a referral system which ensures all available resources can be effectively assessed by applicants.

At the same time, all agencies and providers working with migrants, but especially health care providers, should receive training in identifying signs of anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and other illnesses that may be interfering with migrants’ quality of life.

State and local governments must also work with nonprofit affordable housing developers to develop and preserve affordable housing and rehabilitate vacant, dilapidated housing.

When it comes to education, local governments should ensure schools have the resources required to address students’ trauma; provide language access for both students and parents; and create supportive, inclusive classrooms.

Finally, cities and states should develop and expand programs that support jobs training and foster entrepreneurship to accommodate new Puerto Rican arrivals and provide language access to those who need it.

The recommendations provide a big-picture assessment of the needs of the many families arriving in their state. They are also a call to action to states and cities to establish policies that make sure that those families can support themselves and truly recover after losing it all. Right now, in places like Orlando, Fla., and Hartford, Conn., groups are fighting for housing and language access for the new communities that are coming from Puerto Rico. But given the shamefully inadequate response from the federal government to Puerto Rico, it’s time for local governments to step up.

Julio Lopez Varona is director of Puerto Rican Campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy and Emily Bonilla is District 5 Commissioner in Orange County, Fla.


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