The Puerto Rican catastrophe, a re-examination of the U.S. relationship. Puerto Rico needs us now

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Headlines are blaring about the sluggish government response and the suffering of people from the catastrophe in Puerto Rico.

But there are few stories that chronicle the anguish of family members here who are not able to hear how their parents, children or siblings are faring.

In Camden, New Jersey -- where I teach at Rutgers University and head the LEAP Academy University Charter School -- nearly two-thirds of our students are Puerto Rican. Many mornings, the grade-schoolers cry in my arms at the silence and sluggishness of the situation and the response.

I, too, came to this country from Puerto Rico with my parents. I know only too well the somewhat ambivalent relationship that the United States has with this colony, now called a U.S. “territory.”

Most Puerto Ricans in the United States live in only three states, Florida, New York and here in New Jersey.

That means 47 states have little, if any, ties to the 3.5 million residents of Puerto Rico. That is a shame because it may be contributing to the bureaucratic inertia, scale and pace of the emergency response.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said that the island faces losses of about $800 million, not to mention the loss of life and permanent closures of businesses. This is on top of the national bankruptcies that the territory had been experiencing and bond defaults on its deteriorating infrastructure.

The situation requires immediate humanitarian intervention.

President Trump needs to stop saying that “the situation in PR is going very well.” Puerto Rican people are not well. They are in need of federal intervention for food, water, power, diesel, health care and basic needs.

The Trump Administration needs to make Puerto Rico a priority now, because the needs are urgent. Many people are dying and need help.

We know this because we are talking to families who are devastated with every minute that goes by. This crisis has caused us to demand a total reexamination of our relationships with the U.S. again – including the status of the territory.

Many people don’t even know that Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States.

As a child, my father reminded me often that we needed to be thankful to President Woodrow Wilson for signing the Jones-Shafrorth Act (also known as the Jones Act) in 1917, making all Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens.

Today, though, I am not as grateful; for the existence of the Jones Act. I feel that the law has outlived its usefulness -- and is currently causing more harm than good, hindering responses in emergencies like Hurricane Maria.

To this day, the U.S. Congress has the power to veto any law passed by the legislature in Puerto Rico. The U.S. government also maintains control over fiscal and economic matters and exercises authority over immigration, defense, and basic government matters.

Worse, Puerto Rico has no rights to representation in the U.S. Congress and cannot vote for a U.S. President – effectively disenfranchising the “citizens” that Puerto Ricans supposedly are. Puerto Ricans have no say in the very national politics that affects their lives -- or save lives in catastrophes.

Today, the Jones Act has the unintended consequence of making it twice as expensive to ship things from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico as it is to ship from any other foreign port in the world. It is enforcing a U.S. corporate monopoly that cripples local industry.

President Trump continues to deny Puerto Rico a Jones Act permanent waiver, even in this time of crisis.

Goods on foreign ships delivering goods to Puerto Rico remain subject to double tariffs---even relief supplies!

The Jones Act needs to be repealed during this emergency -- and completely after that. Its continued enforcement ensures that Puerto Ricans will pay higher prices for basic necessities that the hurricane has removed from their grasp.

It is maddening, immoral and worsening the humanitarian crisis. It also bitterly frames any ongoing narrative about the future relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. .