Hispanic Dems lead largest-ever congressional delegation to Puerto Rico

Hispanic Dems lead largest-ever congressional delegation to Puerto Rico
© Rafael Bernal

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) campaign arm is bringing together the largest group of sitting lawmakers to ever visit a U.S. territory with a trip to Puerto Rico.

The delegation of more than 30 members is in Puerto Rico for the Bold PAC convention and a summit hosted by the Latino Victory Fund, a progressive organization dedicated to increasing Hispanic political participation.

ADVERTISEMENT

Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), Bold PAC's chairman, told The Hill he chose Puerto Rico for this year's convention to showcase the island's needs as it slowly recovers from 2017's Hurricane Maria.

"One of the reasons was to show that going to Puerto Rico means that you're helping fellow Americans and you're helping the American economy and in addition to that, the more important side than that is making sure that we came to see for ourselves what is the condition of Puerto Rico. How bad is it? And it's bad," said Cárdenas.

While the group has been criticized over the optics of planning a lawmaker delegation to Puerto Rico in the midst of a partial government shutdown, Cárdenas said the lawmakers are in town to work.

"We started planning this a year ago and just because there's a Trump shutdown, it doesn't mean that the world is going to stop. We appreciate and respect every single worker who's being punished by Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE. But at the same time there's over 3.2 million Puerto Rican American citizens on this island that deserve for us to continue to do our job," said Cárdenas.

Part of the criticism was centered around the fact that actor and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda timed the premiere of an original-cast run of his hit Broadway musical to start over the weekend.

Lawmakers attended a showing of Hamilton Sunday, but Cárdenas said the delegation's main focus was on long policy discussions Saturday.

The group heard from top Puerto Rican officials, including Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D), San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz (D) and Ponce Mayor María "Mayita" Meléndez (D), as well as local business leaders, nongovernmental organizations and the island's Fiscal Control Board.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the policy sessions helped him understand the nuances of how Puerto Rico's financial and political situations are intertwined.

Nadler told The Hill he was most surprised by the structure of the Fiscal Control Board, an oversight organization imposed by Congress over the territory in 2016 to oversee Puerto Rico's fiscal health.

New Jersey Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezHouse passes temporary immigration protections for Venezuelans Senate panel advances bipartisan bill to lower drug prices amid GOP blowback Democrats pledge to fight Trump detention policy during trip to border MORE (D), an advocate for the island, said he learned about friction between labor and government in implementing a $15 per hour minimum wage package.

"We have nowhere near this much attention from the elected federal officials either. So it's a really great thing that Bold PAC is moving members to be able to see firsthand what's going on," said Guam Del. Michael San Nicolas (D), a new member of the CHC.

San Nicolas said the political issues plaguing Puerto Rico's financial situation are familiar to him as a territorial representative.

"It wasn't necessarily something I didn't know, it's something I didn't realize was so pervasive among the territories, but the way the inequities that we have compared to states affect our fiscal situation, is similar whether you're in the Caribbean or you're in the Pacific," said San Nicolas.

"Puerto Rico and their people have suffered a lot of fiscal damage from a lot of debt. That's a very similar situation that's happening in Guam right now," he added.

Cárdenas said the delegation hopes the new Democratic majority in the House successfully accelerates the delivery of disaster recovery funds to the territory.

"I envision that we're going to have a meeting with the members and or the chiefs of staff who came to reiterate what did we learn? What do we know? What should we be doing? I believe that because we have chairmen and women of committees that came on this trip, and they're not members of the Hispanic Caucus, that I believe have been inspired to act, inspired to have hearings and have not just dialogue, but actually take action," said Cárdenas.

Congress has appropriated over $18 billion for Puerto Rico disaster recovery in community development block grants managed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but little of that funding has made its way to projects on the island.

"The pressure that we will put on this administration and the departments, I believe that it will [speed up recovery funds] and the only way that our efforts don't speed up the money coming to the island is if the administration digs in their heels and refuses to do so," said Cárdenas.

"Right now they are literally treating these American citizens as if they're not American citizens," he added.