Conflicting legislation and confusion around citizenship for Puerto Ricans has contributed to the crisis facing the island commonwealth, said a panel of experts gathered to address “The Crisis in Puerto Rico: Citizenship,” at a mini-symposium held this spring, co-sponsored by The American Studies Program, The Rutgers Race & Law Review and the Latin@ Studies Working Group.
Rafael Cox Alomar, an Assistant Professor of Law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of D.C., noted it is the second year that Puerto Rico has had a federal oversight board, which is appointed by the U.S. Congress, manage its finances. In the midst of the debt crisis, the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria. Today, six months after the hurricane residents remain impoverished without access to drinking water or gasoline.
The oversight board has sought to slash pension benefits for Puerto Ricans and take the cap off of the gasoline tax, he said. “Congress is more interested in meeting the needs of creditors, not the average needs of Puerto Rican men, women, and children,” he said.
The proposed reforms would undercut the stability of people already struggling, he said. “The problem isn’t just that we have a high debt, but a lack of economic development to manage the debt.”
Alomar also noted that the oversight board also wants to hike the tuition rates at the University of Puerto Rico – which will likely cause students to leave and study abroad – in addition to cutting public employees, doing away with holiday bonuses and curbing vacation and sick leaves. “The folks who are going to feel the brunt of this are the folks who ‘have not,’ he said.
Alomar also said that the oversight board currently has more power than the Puerto Rican federal government, in part because of territorial clauses that date back to 1898. He called on people of Puerto Rican heritage to unite – whether they live in New York, Florida, or the island of Puerto Rico, to change legal doctrines to help deal with the debt crisis.
Charles R. Venator Santiago, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut, waded through the murky rules governing Puerto Rican citizenship, adding that since the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico as a territory in 1898, it has ratified 1 treaty, 11 laws, and 101 bills that mention different types of citizenship for Puerto Rican residents.
He said between 1906 and 1940, the U.S. Congress passed up to eight statutes that extend different types of naturalized citizenship status on Puerto Ricans. However, despite the ability of Puerto Ricans to become naturalized U.S. citizens, they are not afforded the same rights as other citizens.
“The contradiction is that after you grant citizenship to Puerto Ricans, the U.S. treats Puerto Rico as a foreign country when it’s convenient,” he said. “The Constitution doesn’t quite apply.”
He said the U.S. Supreme Court has left it to Congress whether to remove Puerto Rico’s status as a territory and has refused to settle the citizenship status of its residents
Finally, Professor Jason Cortes, Director of the American Studies Program at Rutgers University-Newark, shared a presentation that explored the themes of death, violence and disposability by looking at funeral and cultural practices among Puerto Rican people. The images, featuring photographs of embalmed people and spiritual images in art, related to the haunting of Puerto Rican people by the legacy of colonialism, the veil of debt, and a lack of future – giving the impression that they are disposable.
The panel was moderated by Rutgers Law Professor Carlos Gonzalez.