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Trump’s Puerto Rico response just might bring the island voting rights


By not sending the U.S. military to deliver humanitarian aid sooner, President Trump has unwittingly become the advocate-in-chief for extending the right to vote for U.S. presidential nominees in the general election to Puerto Ricans.

No, he has not (yet) embraced the long-standing Republican Party plank favoring Puerto Rican statehood. Instead, he has left many islanders feeling so hopeless they are fleeing to the mainland — and, along with it, garnering the opportunity to vote for president.

{mosads}Labeling some Puerto Rican political leaders as “ingrates,” and by waiting to act, Trump is motivating desperate islanders to flee to the mainland — mostly Florida — where they automatically can vote for all federal office holders. Even as President Donald Trump landed at Muniz Air National Guard in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Tuesday afternoon, the first three relief centers opened in Miami and Orlando to welcome Puerto Rican newcomers to Florida.

Since Puerto Ricans have the same right as mainlanders to relocate anywhere in the U.S., Borinqueños, as they call themselves, can simply vote with their feet. No complex paperwork, no passport: Just move to Miami and register to vote. Easy-peasy.

The natural disaster is accelerating a trend already underway. Frank Lopez, president of metro Orlando’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce estimated recently that a quarter of a million people might leave the island, but other analysts who know Puerto Rico say that the numbers of Puerto Ricans who may depart for the mainland is between 500,000 — 1 million during the next 3-5 years.
Like residents of Washington, D.C., Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, subject to military conscription who do not have representation in the U.S. Congress. Unlike residents of D.C., Puerto Ricans cannot vote for the U.S. president.

This anomaly derives from the origins of the Commonwealth, which became a U.S. protectorate in 1899, as part of the Spanish American War booty. Congress established the idiosyncratic system that makes islanders full citizens in 1917, but as residents they pay no federal personal income taxes and cannot vote for the U.S. president in the general election, although both the Democratic and Republican parties include islanders in the presidential primaries. They vote to nominate but not elect the president of their country.

Don’t be surprised if you didn’t know the status: A recent poll found that less than half of Americans know that Puerto Rican islanders are U.S. citizens from birth.

The island’s sole non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón is a Republican, pro-statehood advocate and, despite earlier being on Trump’s list of adversaries, stood by his side on Tuesday, along with Governor Ricardo Rossello. They both praised the federal response to the disaster but said that they intend to see more federal assistance for the island. By contrast, the Mayor of Aguidilla, also a Republican, dared Trump to find any federal workers in his devastated community.

That was a marked difference from the governor’s June comments supporting statehood:  “You close the final, shameful chapter of colonialism,” he said. “It makes no sense in the 21st century.”

Thus far, more than 100,000 have fled the disemboweled island since the storm hit, a storm that may cost the island $45–90 billion.

This week, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee will consider $1 billion in Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico, an allocation expected to pass in mid-October.

Some have speculated that the political status of Puerto Rico will shift because of the current crisis to a move for statehood, a position on which Governor Rossello campaigned.

Referendums for political status have taken place for decades, and during that time, the vote for independence remained in the single digits; during the 80’s and 90’s, the vote between statehood and commonwealth (the current status) has been more or less evenly divided, with commonwealth winning the day. In June, the most recent referendum took place: 97 percent of the island voted for statehood in a vote in which several parties boycotted and the overall number of votes was less than 25 percent of eligible voters.

Yet, even seasoned analysts are aware that a Republican–led Senate is unlikely to support a move that would give the island four Congressional representatives and two Senators, who would likely be Democrats and would involve a reallocation of seats in the Congress, where a new assessment would probably involve the loss of seats in the Northeast.

From 2001–2008, half a million Puerto Ricans, largely Catholic, conservative and Democratic party middle-class families came to the U.S. as a result of several economic factors: the anticipation of the elimination of a key tax exemption (the “936” tax) and due to the onset of the financial crisis in the U.S., which had devastating impact on the island. Regardless of the island’s status, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is legally bound to treat the island the same as a state.

New mainland arrivals from the island, are likely, analysts say, to be more interested in mainstreaming, looking for jobs and may be in lower income brackets.

Puerto Ricans, regardless of party or political leanings, are historically patriotic. For example, they have served in the military in greater numbers per population than Americans and in all wars.

One analyst, who preferred not to be cited, told me, “They may have felt slighted, (by the president) but in the end, he showed up.”

Puerto Ricans have felt that Washington was slow to act, and Trump’s comments in Puerto Rico appeared tone-deaf to many: He gave himself an “A+” on the administration’s performance; he favorably compared the number of deaths to Katrina; he told Puerto Ricans that they have “thrown our budget a little out of whack;” and, in the most famous series of tweets, he called some of its politicians “ingrates.”

These new voters from the island are settling in swing states on the mainland: some in the northeast, others in the South (mainly Florida), the Midwest and the West, according to a Pew Research report, published three years ago. Some analysts think it will be a plus for Trump, others think it will turn the tide for Democrats. But, regardless of prognostications,  Hurricane Maria has shifted the demographics of both the island of Puerto Rico — and the mainland of the U.S.

In the short term, the devastating shortage of food, water and electricity left in the wake of Hurricane Maria has sparked heated exchanges between San Juan’s Mayor and Trump with criticism that the U.S. is not doing enough.

The longer term effect on the politics of the Puerto Rican vote, island and mainland, auger a showdown on the issue of empowerment: Will it just be voting rights or full statehood? Time, and perhaps the next hurricane season, will tell.

Pamela Falk, former staff director of a House of Representatives Subcommittee, is CBS News TV & Radio Foreign Affairs Analyst & U.N. Resident Correspondent and holds a J.D. from Columbia School of Law.  She has written extensively about Puerto Rico, editor of The Political Status of Puerto Rico (Lexington Books). She can be reached at @PamelaFalk.

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