Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico 2 weeks ago, creating devastating damage and a humanitarian crisis for 3.5 million U.S. citizens. Today, 88 percent of Puerto Rico’s residents lack electricity, 43 percent lack water, the health care and school systems are in shambles, and over 58 citizens have died, while the president has been throwing paper towels at people and tweeting racist diatribes. All this is exacerbated by 100 percent of Puerto Ricans lacking equal access to voting rights. Under the 1917 Jones Act, Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million U.S. citizens do not have voting representatives in Congress, and cannot cast votes for president. The Jones Act was in the news recently, as it restricted non-U.S. ships from docking in Puerto Rico. After being temporarily lifted, the Act’s colonialist shipping restrictions are back in place, limiting access to life-saving supplies.
But little attention has been paid to the fact that the Jones Act also created a second class of citizenship that lacks Congressional representation and the ability to vote in federal elections. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that Puerto Ricans are left without adequate response to the humanitarian crisis. The Jones Act must be fully repealed in order for citizens on the island to have an equal political voice in American democracy.
Here on the mainland, the Puerto Rican diaspora is leading the recovery efforts. The Washington Post recently reported that “Puerto Ricans are a surging, outraged political force in Florida in the aftermath of Maria”— clearly an understatement. Puerto Rico has already sent 60 percent of its population to the mainland, and many more are now fleeing. Florida is home to a million Puerto Ricans who moved there in the past 10 years, and many thousands more will be arriving before the 2018 Congressional elections. Illinois, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and most of New England also have substantial Puerto Rican populations, and their numbers will dramatically increase in the coming year.