The Wall Street Journal recently published an opinion piece entitled, Puerto Rico's Debt Portent: The refugee exodus builds and will add to the U.S. dole.
It immediately created a pandemonium and state and island-based Puerto Ricans joined in condemning the WSJ while signing petitions demanding that the news outlet retracted from these comments.
Can Puerto Ricans be considered refugees if they are U.S. citizens moving across U.S. territories? Isn't a refugee someone who flees to a foreign country to escape danger or persecution? The answers to these questions are "Yes" and "Yes again." But unlike most of my friends and colleagues I do not want the WSJ to retract its comments. In fact, I want those comments to stand.
I agree with the WSJ, PUERTO RICANS JOINING THE EXODUS ARE IN FACT REFUGEES. But not for the reasons the article's author had in mind.
The WSJ is just another piece in a media campaign designed to portray Puerto Ricans negatively, as incompetent, untrustworthy aliens who may bring economic and social ruin to the United States. The article starts by asserting that Puerto Rican "refugees" will add to the U.S. dole. Of course! What else could Puerto Ricans moving to the contiguous United States want but to live off the hard work of true Americans, to live off welfare?
The WSJ is so negative and misleading that right off the bat states that "Puerto Rico Made good on its THREAT to default" referring to Puerto Rico's Government Development Bank defaulting on most of a $422 million debt payment that came due this past Sunday. The key word here is THREAT.
The WSJ ignores all the austerity measures taken by the past and current Puerto Rican administration. It ignores the cuts in services, the shutting down of schools, new taxes to increase revenue, the gutting of pensions, and the decimation of the public labor sector. Instead, the WSJ portrays Puerto Rico's government inability to make the payment as a threat, a ruse, as if it were hiding money from its creditors.
And finally, the WSJ warns its readers that these "refugees" will also be able to vote in important states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio; and that may tip the elections in favor of the Democrats. Apparently, immigration laws were changed overnight and refugees now arrive to the United States fully vested with U.S. citizenship, welfare forms in hand, and ready to vote Democrat.
The WSJ's article may sound incoherent, a collection of non sequiturs forced together in the wee hours of the night as a struggling author tried to make a deadline. But there is a beauty to it. This article manages to weave several right wing imagined fears into one piece. It plays on the fear that terrorists may be coming to the United States disguised as refugees. It pushes the debased theory that migrants (and Puerto Ricans) come to the U.S. to live off welfare while contaminating the social fabric of American society. And it wants you to believe that this is a type of Democrat plot to stay in power. It makes sense, if you don't think about it.
But they article is right about something. Puerto Ricans are refugees. Let me explain. Island-born Puerto Ricans have been U.S. nationals since 1900 and U.S. citizens since 1917. However, to this day many state-based Puerto Ricans and those joining the Diaspora feel and are treated as aliens in the U.S. mainland.
That Puerto Ricans are treated as foreigners is not simply due to the ignorance of a large sector of the American public with regard to Puerto Ricans. Opinion makers like the WSJ and even more balanced outlets play a big role on this. Remember when Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was called "the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants"?
But the cherry on top muddling our understanding of who and what exactly are the Puerto Ricans and what the hell are they doing in the United States, is a series of decisions by the Supreme Court at the beginning of the past century.
A number of cases brought before the supreme court in 1901, known as the insular cases, testing the relationship of Puerto Rico (and Hawaii and the Philippines) and the U.S., as well as the status of Puerto Ricans, resulted in decisions that affirmed that Puerto Rico was Foreign in a Domestic Sense!
Simply put, in these cases the he Supreme Court held that full constitutional rights do not automatically extend to all places under American control. This meant that inhabitants of unincorporated territories (like Puerto Rico) may lack some constitutional rights, even if they are citizens. These cases also established that Puerto Rico belonged but was not part of the United States. In short, the constitution does not follow the flag.
Does it sound like colonialism? You betcha. But we are talking about 1901 when "benevolent imperialism" was in vogue. Hence, among the many arguments presented in these decisions we found that: democracy and colonialism are not incompatible; that there is no wrong when a democracy governs other subjects who do not participate in the democratic process; and finally, not all people are created equal, some races are superior to others and the superior races should carry the "white men's burden" to mold inferior others in their image and to govern them until the superior race deems necessary.
I recently participated in a conference at John Jay College, CUNY, where Efrén Rivera Ramos, Dean of the School of Law at the University of Puerto Rico, explained the meaning of Congress plenary powers over Puerto Rico. He said, that the government of a state of the union derives its powers from the people of the state, whereas the government of a territory owes its existence wholly to the United States He added that in essence, in these cases the Supreme Court gave Congress a tool for colonialism. Light, subtle, colonialism but colonialism nonetheless. Thus the U.S. government can exert an extraordinary amount of power that it can't exert over the states.
These decisions are important because they established that American citizens living in Puerto Rico do not necessarily enjoy all the protections extended to U.S. citizens in the states. And perhaps more importantly, it makes evident that Puerto Rico, even to this day, is not sovereign in any way, shape or form which cripples the ability of any incumbent to effectively deal with the debt crisis.
But let's go back to "simpler" issues. If Puerto Rico is foreign in a domestic sense, then the now hundreds of thousands of island-based Boricuas who have joined the Diaspora are in fact domestic refugees. After all the definition of a refugee is someone who flees to a foreign country to escape danger or persecution. They are believed to be, and are treated as aliens. And many get to feel like foreigners in a country that should be welcoming them- after all, in 1898 Puerto Ricans did not cross the frontier, the frontier crossed Puerto Rico.
Many of the now hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have left the island since the crisis started would've preferred to stay in the island. They left under duress, seeking a better future, leaving their homes, their friends and extended family behind. And you may find them in what some have called Forced Exile, cramped in cheap motels in Orlando trying their best every day to find work that may allow them to provide for their families.
So yes, island-based Puerto Ricans are escaping danger and insecurity. They are escaping from debt, financial, health, and humanitarian crises. And they going to places to which they rightly belong but where they are treated as foreigners. Hence, they are refugees in a domestic sense.