Politicians With Puerto Rican Roots Challenge Trump in Push for Aid
A largely left-leaning cast of Puerto Rican politicians in New York, members of the diaspora or descendants of it, has emerged as a force pushing for aid and attention. They have used the bully pulpits of their offices, booking cable news appearances and writing letters to federal agencies. Representative Nydia M. Velázquez held a news conference in which she warned Mr. Trump that unless he stepped up his efforts for storm victims, “this will become his Katrina.”
The politicians have also sought to wield their influence behind the scenes, lobbying congressional leaders for immediate relief aid as well as longer-term support. Mr. Serrano believes his position on the powerful House Appropriations Committee could help secure the money Puerto Rico needed, calling it “my first priority.”
“It doesn’t matter how many years you spend in New York. It doesn’t matter that you’re a member of Congress,” Mr. Serrano said. “If you were born in Puerto Rico, that island is still in your heart. It’s something that’s very much a part of you and doesn’t leave you.”
Puerto Rico has long depended on those ties as people left for the mainland, where, especially in and around New York City, the community has become deeply entrenched and gained political influence over the course of several generations. “The greatest hope for Puerto Rico is its diaspora,” said José Cálderon, the president of the Hispanic Federation, a national advocacy group. “If we’re going to get Congress to do the right thing,” he said, referring to aid, “it is going to be the diaspora that does it.”
Officials and nonprofit groups in Puerto Rico say the immediate need remains for essentials like food and water. But some are already taking stock of the far more enormous investment a full recovery will surely require: rebuilding a health care system and energy grid that had been fraying before the hurricane and are now a shambles, and relief from a debt crisis that had set off its own wave of devastating consequences, including forcing officials to declare a form of bankruptcy this year and spurring an exodus.
As residents of a territory of the United States, Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but they have little clout in Washington: They cannot vote for president in the general election and their delegate in Congress is a nonvoting member. “Is that a disadvantage? Absolutely,” said Edwin Meléndez, the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, who noted that the island could be better served by having its own voting members in Congress. Still, he added, “you have this other network of elected officials that mitigates that lack of representation.”
That network has not always served as a unified force. (Five of the 43 Latino members of Congress are Puerto Rican and all are in the House.) The financial crisis, for instance, was an issue that sowed division. But the storm’s toll has brought many of these politicians together in championing a relief effort. In New York, such efforts have been encouraged by the city’s Puerto Rican community, a significant bloc of support for Puerto Ricans running for elected office.