Puerto Rican residents of San Juan wait in line people affected by Hurricane Maria wait in line at Barrio Obrero to receive supplies from the National Guard. Carlos Giusti/AP

With federal disaster relief lagging, residents of the devastated island territory have little say about what happens to them next.

Updated: September 28, 2017

For a week after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the Trump administration declined to waive a set of shipping regulations in order to help speed food, gasoline, and other supplies to the island.

Just weeks earlier, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security waived the restrictions under the Jones Act—a 1920 law that limits shipping between U.S. coasts to U.S.–flagged vessels—in order to get aid to the victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida. The government has waived the act routinely after emergencies, though not without deliberation. Suspending the Jones Act takes more than a flip of a switch: Unless the request comes from the Defense Secretary, it faces several hurdles. [UPDATE 9/28: After mounting criticism, the administration changed course: White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced on Thursday morning that the Jones Act was waived for Puerto Rico.]

In other words, suspending the Jones Act requires someone in the leadership to spend some political capital. That the Trump administration initially declined to do so on behalf of Puerto Rico may underscore how the political gulf between this island territory and the rest of America is an obstacle to its recovery. About half of Americans surveyed recently did not realize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens—and given that President Trump spent the weekend arguing with black NFL players on Twitter, he may be among them.

“The only way to fix long-term the situation in Puerto Rico is through statehood,” says Jose Fuentes, chairman of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council. The crisis has reinvigorated the long-running debate about whether Puerto Rico deserves to be formally admitted to the union, a question that dates back to Balzac v. Porto Rico [sic]—a 1922 decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court hit the brakes on the aspirations of U.S. territories. “After 100 years of being U.S. citizens, fighting in every war since 1917, basically Congress turning us into the equal of a state without the funding, it’s time for Congress to act.”

Puerto Rico’s short-term needs are profound, and the government has now taken steps to address them. On September 21, President Donald Trump declared a major disaster for Puerto Rico and, on Tuesday, amended the declaration to provide even more federal aid. The U.S. Navy is now deploying a hospital ship, the U.S.N.S. Comfort, to Puerto Rico—after some cajoling from Hillary Clinton. Missing from the White House declarations, though, is any sense of real alarm.

Asked about his administration’s initial decision to deny the Jones Act waiver on Wednesday, Trump cavalierly cited the interests of the shipping industry: “A lot of people that work in the shipping industry ... don’t want the Jones Act lifted,” he said. “We have a lot of ships out there right now.” [UPDATE: The American Maritime Partnership, a coalition representing the U.S. maritime industry, has said that the concerns about the Jones Act are overblown. According to a statement from the group, distributing the supplies from ports is the bottleneck, not getting supplies to port.]

The deepening humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico reveals a disaster response that is categorically different from the actions taken in the wake of hurricanes that struck the continental U.S. recently. While Fuentes praised the efforts of the president, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, he outlined several needs that may not be in the offing.

“Short term—like, tomorrow—Puerto Rico needs a waiver on the Jones Act, so we can start bringing stuff in without the imposition of the Jones Act,” Fuentes said on Tuesday, before Homeland Security delivered a no verdict. “Hospitals are running with generators. Frozen-food warehouses are running on generators. They need to get diesel if we want to keep that food.”

Next, Congress will take up the issue of a hurricane relief package for Puerto Rico. Or maybe not: Politico reports that a formal funding request is still weeks away, as the devastation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is so widespread that an assessment cannot be made. Still, Congress passed a major hurricane relief package just six days after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas. And the government relaxed the Jones Act to deal with the Exxon Valdez oil spill—an ecological tragedy, but far from a humanitarian catastrophe.

Puerto Rico will have no real say in whatever decision Congress makes. The stakes could not be higher: One estimate pegs hurricane damages at more than $72 billion. Maria came just a month after Puerto Rico declared a soft bankruptcy in May—following a debt crisis that Fuentes and other critics say was spurred in large part by Puerto Rico’s inequitable standing vis-à-vis the rest of the country. It’s possible that the damages wrought by Maria could even exceed the debt that ruined the island financially.

In the long run, several other features of Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory could exacerbate its suffering. The Refundable Child Tax Credit enjoyed by American families in U.S. states doesn’t fully apply to Puerto Rico, where only families with three or more children may take the deduction. The Earned Income Tax Credit, a form of tax relief for low-income families, does not apply to Puerto Rico.

Progressive-leaning institutions such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have argued for extending these tax benefits to Puerto Rican families, while conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation have argued the opposite. Either way, Puerto Ricans have no say in the decision. (The island is represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by Jenniffer González, a non-voting Resident Commissioner.)

Taxpayers in Puerto Rico pay all federal taxes (except income tax on income generated on the island). Yet despite paying into both Medicare and Medicaid, Puerto Rico residents are reimbursed at far lower rates than those in U.S. states. According to Johnny Rullán, Puerto Rico’s former Secretary of Health, “Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program receives [a] 70 percent lower reimbursement rate of any other state and is capped.”

Looking far ahead to rebuilding, Fuentes says that Puerto Rico will need to completely overhaul its infrastructure, from roads and bridges to the power grid. “You can’t just fix what is there now,” he says. “It needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.” That means economic opportunity and jobs for Puerto Ricans, but it also will require support from the federal government in the form of Community Development Block Grants and other forms of support that the Trump administration has promised to slash.

Again: Puerto Rico gets no vote in any of the congressional bills, packages, or reforms that will dictate its future. Its residents, who have enjoyed U.S. citizenship for 100 years, wish it were otherwise: 97 percent of voters supported a statehood referendum in June. (This referendum was marked by low voter turnout. While support for statehood has climbed in recent years, the semi-frequent plebiscites on Puerto Rico’s future may not fully register voter attitudes. The terms of the ballot are often the subject of partisan bickering.)

Statehood for Puerto Rico appears to be a non-starter, politically, even though some voters there trend conservative. It’s hard to say how Puerto Ricans would vote in congressional elections, since the island has entirely different political parties than the mainland. It’s safe to say that they don’t much care for Trump: One Miami Herald columnist suggests that the president’s disinterest in Puerto Rico may be a consequence of the fact that Clinton carried so many Puerto Rican votes in Florida during the 2016 election.

One statehood effort would admit Puerto Rico alongside the District of Columbia as new states, in order to neutralize the gains in Congress that would accrue to either party, with new representatives from Puerto Rico perhaps canceling out those of heavily Democratic-voting Washington, D.C. It’s as good an idea as any to grant statehood to residents who pay federal taxes and die in foreign wars—but, in Puerto Rico, never get to vote for a senator or a president.

The case for statehood for Puerto Rico has newfound urgency. Upcoming decisions on tax reform, infrastructure spending, and social safety-net cuts—to say nothing of more immediate aid packages before Congress—will frame a recovery process that could last a generation.  

“Thirty-two territories have become a state,” Fuentes says. “This is not rocket science. We know what the process is.”

This post has been updated.

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