In 1917, Congress passed the Jones Act, which gave American citizenship to people born in Puerto Rico. One hundred years later, the island was devastated by Hurricane. And, although the Trump administration has waived it for ten days, that same Jones Act, along with other issues, is now hampering our responses to our fellow citizens, whose needs are urgent.
The United States had acquired this island in the Caribbean Sea after winning the Spanish-American War in 1898. At the time, few Americans wanted it to become part of the country. Most Puerto Ricans spoke Spanish, not English; many were descendants of enslaved people. From the perspective of the national government, they were aliens who would not be able to assimilate into the United States.
Unlike all previous territories, including Alaska and Hawaii, there was no expectation that Puerto Rico would become a state and enter the union. The Supreme Court even ruled in 1901 that such newly conquered territories were not “within the United States.” Still, in part because Puerto Ricans were expected to fight for the United States, the Jones Act passed in 1917, with the support of President Wilson, and many Puerto Ricans served as soldiers during World War I and thereafter.
This year marks a century of citizenship for Puerto Ricans. Many mainlanders, though, seem unaware of this fact. As we explain in Fault Lines in the Constitution, the situation is complicated.
While they live on Puerto Rico, these citizens do not have the right to vote in federal elections. They are not represented by a voting member of Congress. And they do not have a vote in the Electoral College. With a current population of about 3.5 million people (equal to that of Connecticut) Puerto Ricans would have five representatives in Congress, two senators, and seven members in the Electoral College, if their home were a state. But it’s not.
On the other hand, as US citizens, they have the right to migrate from the island to the mainland. In fact, more Puerto Ricans now live within the continental United States than on the island itself. Ironically, by leaving their homes and settling in one of the fifty states, they gain the right to vote for president and members of Congress.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria have made conditions on the island desperate. Electricity might not be fully available for months. Residents need massive deliveries of food, water, medicines, and other basics. It is expensive, though, to ship goods to the island, largely because the Jones Act requires that all products be sent only on American ships. There are predictions that many more Puerto Ricans will flee to the mainland.
The US Virgin Islands, which Congress bought from Denmark in 1917 and is also a territory, is in a similar plight. Like Puerto Rico, their residents are citizens, but have no say in decisions made by the national government. Yet, they, too, were devastated by the hurricanes, and aid has been slow in arriving.
Massive amounts of federal dollars will probably be sent to the Texas Gulf Coast and to Florida because of the hurricane damage there. Unfortunately, many islanders and mainlanders alike wonder if equal generosity will be shown to our fellow Americans in the Caribbean. Their nonvoting delegates in the House may speak for them (though not on the floor), but, with no vote, they cannot engage in the cajoling that is part and parcel of our legislative process. Squeaky wheels are said to get the grease, and little squeaks more loudly than actual voting power.
It is not simply that Puerto Ricans lack voices to plead for them. Residents of the District of Columbia, which is also not a state, can at least vote in presidential elections and send three members to the Electoral College. Puerto Ricans can’t even do either of these, so presidential candidates have no incentive to care about them.
Relatively few Puerto Ricans support declaring independence from the United States. Most of the rest are split fairly evenly between those who want statehood and those who prefer to retain their current hybrid status, which entitles the territory to send its own team to the Olympics but not vote for national officials.
There are many good reasons for the federal government to contribute to Puerto Rico in its time of dire need. We would not want to encourage the island to secede by abandoning them. Above all, though, they are our fellow citizens. And, as Americans, we should support one another from sea to shining sea—that is, from the Pacific to the Atlantic to the Caribbean.